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BIA says vacating 31st Street is 'top priority'

LAWRENCE, Kan. ? The long delayed plans for a proposed bypass near the Haskell Indian Nations University campus faces more opposition, this time from the BIA.

Department of Interior Field Solicitor Robert McCarthy called vacating 31st Street, a two-lane road that cuts through the southern part of the Haskell campus, a top priority.

The BIA said it plans to fight any alignment of the South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT) that would be north of the Wakarusa River, if 31st Street isn't first removed. The announcement followed a recent meeting in which the Douglas County commissioners said traffic projections for 2025 would make it impossible to remove 31st Street.

The battle over the SLT has been ongoing for more than a decade, but with the BIA threatening to file a formal complaint with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a part of its environmental impact statement, the Kansas Department of Transportation plans for the bypass may suffer.

If the BIA fights the proposal, it may not only rid the Haskell Campus of 31st Street, but also send Transportation back to the drawing board as it looks for an alternative route for the SLT as well.

Those opposing the SLT say they fear an alignment south of the Wakarusa River, combined with heavy traffic already traveling 31st Street, will not only pose noise and safety hazards for Haskell students, but will endanger existence of the Haskell wetlands as well.

'The Bureau's position is that 31st Street must be vacated and removed from the campus altogether,' McCarthy said. 'If that's not done, then the Bureau will oppose any construction of the South Lawrence Trafficway.'

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The BIA's Office of Indian Education wrote to the Kansas Department of Transportation several months ago taking the same position, but area newspapers continued to carry stories that although there is some opposition it is nothing that should be taken seriously.

'The issue with 31st Street is that the county has a 400 foot-wide right of way on 31st Street, presently the road is nowhere near that.' McCarthy continued. 'What the county has legal right to do is to expand 400 feet. The road is already a nuisance on the campus. If it were expanded to 400 feet wide it would be a detrimental impact on the campus.'

McCarthy is not happy blame has been placed on the school for stopping the SLT project. 'They have blamed Haskell for stalling it. Certainly Haskell has not supported the SLT and at this point the threat of 31st Street poses a greater threat to the Haskell campus than does the SLT. Frankly it would make 31st Street a de facto South Lawrence Trafficway.'

McCarthy said he didn't believe the state of Kansas was using the threat of widening 31st Street as a strong-arm method to get Haskell to crumble and accept the SLT.

'I wouldn't say that because it is really two different levels of government. It is the county that has the right of way for 31st Street, they don't want to give that up, they want it widened. Meanwhile, the state is trying to build the SLT, which is not concerned with local traffic. It certainly is a compromise to propose this, some kind of a win-win situation. The county also wants the SLT, they get that built, but Haskell gets 31st Street removed from the campus.'

If a proposed 32nd Street route for the SLT is chosen and 31st Street is vacated, McCarthy said the BIA still expects proper mitigation to address noise, sight and traffic and safety issues.

County commissioners and state officials now have to put the BIA's position regarding the SLT into the mix as they try to find some way to complete the SLT project. McCarthy and local opponents of the SLT say they plan to keep a close eye on developments.