Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Kansas Department of Transportation officials outlined plans Wednesday for putting a state highway program abandoned by former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback back on track.
Years of lean budgets prompted annual raids of the state highway fund. With more than $2 billion siphoned off since 2011, it became known as the “bank of KDOT.”
“By reducing transfers from the state highway fund, we move closer to closing the bank of KDOT,” Kelly said at a news conference staged at the transportation agency.
Kelly said her plan to stop diverting highway dollars would pave the way for restarting T-WORKS. The 10-year transportation program was launched in 2010, but stalled a few years later when Brownback’s tax cuts tanked the state budget.
The new governor’s proposed budget reduces KDOT transfers by $160 million in the coming budget year with a goal of phasing them out entirely by 2023.
“To be clear, we still have a long way to go in order to get our transportation system where we want it to be,” Kelly said. “But this is an important incremental step.”
The immediate infusion of cash, said KDOT Secretary Julie Lorenz, would allow the agency to resume work on four of the delayed T-WORKS projects.
Work to expand a section of US-54 in Seward County and modernize a stretch of US-169 in Anderson County would start this fall. Work to modernize a portion of US-281 in Russell County and to expand a section of US-50 in Lyon County would begin in the spring of 2020.
Those projects are first in line, Lorenz said, because they are, “the only four we have ready to go immediately.”
Another 17 projects remain on the unfinished list.
The loss of funding made it impossible for the agency to complete all the preliminary work needed to get those shovel ready, Lorenz said.
“We need assurance that we’re going to continue to have stable, reliable funding so that we can continue to push forward to complete the designs and acquire the right-of-way for the remaining T-WORKS projects,” she said.
A special legislative task force on transportation recently issued its recommendations. At the top of the list was increasing funding for the “heavy maintenance” work that KDOT does to preserve roads and bridges.
The agency needs $500 million a year to keep up with the needs on the system, the secretary said. It currently has only $350 million, but Kelly is proposing an additional $50 million in her budget.
That’s enough, Lorenz said, to maintain another 200 miles of roadway.
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, the chair of the task force and the Kansas Senate’s budget writing committee, said the funding restoration proposed by the governor are the first steps in a long rebuilding process.
“Today is a new day,” said McGinn, a Wichita Republican. “I’m excited that we’re moving forward.”
In addition to the four major projects and the additional maintenance, the plan outlined Wednesday includes money to help cities maintain the state highways that pass through them.
That’s welcome news to Donald Roberts, the mayor of Edgerton, a Kansas City suburb that serves as a freight distribution hub for railroads and trucking companies.
“We’ve got to start somewhere,” Roberts said, emphasizing the need to get KDOT’s maintenance funding back to adequate levels.
“That’s a ‘pay me now’ or ‘pay me a lot more later’ situation,” he said.
Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks.
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