Lawrence City Commission votes against applying for grant for Lawrence Loop, Kansas River project

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Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday voted down a plan to seek federal funding for a project that aimed to close a portion of the Lawrence Loop downtown and build a new bridge across the Kansas River.

City staff members and a steering committee have been working on a project with plans to seek a federal grant called a RAISE (Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity) grant. The grants can award up to $25 million for transportation projects, and no match is required.

They said their priority with the grant was to close a portion of the Lawrence Loop — the series of trails that nearly encircle the city south of the Kansas River — from Seventh Street to Constant Park. They also wanted to include a bicycle and pedestrian bridge across the river and provide a path to cross railroad tracks.

City staff members told the commission they received information late that required them to remove a segment of the loop that was planned to run along a section of the river — though Sarah Hill-Nelson of the Bowersock Mills and Power Company wrote in comments to the commission that “Bowersock contacted the City and project representatives very early in the process to explain why a proposed portion of the project was not feasible and our comments were ignored.”

The grant application would need to be submitted by the end of the month. The Lawrence Loop: 7th Street to Constant Park Steering Committee had voted 7-2 in favor of the concept plan; the Multimodal Transportation Committee voted 3-2 in favor of it. 

The future of the project was unclear at the end of Tuesday’s meeting. 

Nate Clark, who represented North Lawrence as a member of the steering committee, and seven other people who gave public comment Tuesday encouraged the commission to deny the request to apply for the grant or consider pivoting to seek a RAISE planning grant instead of a RAISE capital grant. 

Clark said he had concerns about multiple elements of the project: it would have added a bridge across the river nearby where there are bridges already, and the portion of the loop through downtown “in my opinion is no different than what the loop is right now,” he said.

“People will still be required to navigate downtown. They’ll be required to go through kind of a cityscape, deal with crossings, deal with public streets, deal with cars right there,” he said, as opposed to other portions of the loop where trails are vehicle-free for pedestrians and cyclists. 

Chris Tilden, another member of the steering committee, told commissioners there were multiple members of the committee who had concerns about the ultimate alignment of the project. He said there was new information and 17 pages of public comments provided to them the day before the final committee meeting, and the whole process seemed rushed. 

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei asked city staff members about pivoting to seek a planning grant. The change could provide funds for further study of the project and design, but staff members said it would likely not be feasible within the scope of the city’s $269,000 contract with Bartlett & West, the consultants who have been working on the project. 

Commissioner Amber Sellers asked what the city could hope to gain from a planning grant as opposed to the capital grant, and what they might expect to be different if that were to happen. Mark Hecker, assistant director of parks, said he thought it would be spending additional money to get to the same conclusion.

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Jessica Mortinger, transportation planning manager, said the city has to consider that even though they can seek a RAISE grant in future years, the specific requirements for projects could change. 

“We have spent a lot of time and energy on this process, and the desire is to deliver a product to meet these community goals,” Mortinger said. 

Mayor Bart Littlejohn said it was unfortunate that the timetable for the grant was accelerated, but it has to be submitted by the end of the month. 

“I’d like to us to go ahead and proceed with it so that we could have a viable path across the river and also connections to the loop,” he said, and noted that closing that section of the loop has been in the city’s capital improvement plan for years.

Finkeldei said without the river portion that had to be nixed from the plans, he didn’t see how the project was really accomplishing much to close the loop. 

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“That’s what seems to me needs to go back to the drawing board,” he said, but he hoped the project would continue and that staff would come back with a proposal to keep working on it. 

Vice Mayor Mike Dever said that as a bicyclist, he didn’t think the project solved problems that he sees, and that was why he wouldn’t vote in favor of it. 

“I really want to focus our community on bicycle safety and walkability,” Dever said. “I still can’t cross in front of City Hall safely, and until I can do that and I see something that proves that, I really want to make a clear point that we’ve got to fix that choke point in our community.”

Commissioner Lisa Larsen said she was concerned about the congested area near Sixth Street and crossing the street in that area. She also had concerns that staff had inadvertently shared incorrect information about whether concrete could be used on the levee, and she worried that the misinformation affected the steering committee’s final vote. 

Ultimately, Littlejohn and Sellers voted in favor of applying for the grant. Dever, Finkeldei and Larsen voted against it, so it failed 3-2.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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Kaw Valley Almanac for April 22-28, 2024

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