LAWRENCE — A judge ruled that a Federal Highway Administration plan to extend a busy highway through a wetlands area south of Lawrence is sound, clearing the way for construction to begin in the next few years.
U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil issued a ruling last week upholding the process the FHA used when drawing up its plan for extending the South Lawrence Trafficway through wetlands near Baker University. Vratil did note that she had "misgivings" about the route.
Opponents of the plan, including several environmental groups, have been fighting the project for more than 20 years and vowed to appeal Vratil's ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. They have proposed a route that would take the highway south of the sensitive wetlands.
The new highway would extend the existing South Lawrence Trafficway from U.S. 59 seven miles east to K-10. As part of the project, the Kansas Department of Transportation has agreed to build 300 acres of new wetlands.
Funding for the $188 million project isn't expected to come until at least 2013. But state transportation officials said the ruling is a positive step.
"We are obviously happy," KDOT chief counsel Vicky Johnson said. "It clears the way for construction of the project."
Bob Eye, who represents seven groups who sued two years ago to stop the project, said his clients will appeal.
"It is not over," said Eye, who represents the Prairie Band Pottawatomie Nation, Sierra Club, Wetlands Preservation Organization, Jayhawk Audubon Society, Save the Wakarusa Wetlands and Kansas University's Environs and EcoJustice groups.
Even if the opponents appeal the court's decision, KDOT could begin construction of the road unless a judge orders an injunction.