Highway plan part of economic recovery in hard-hit Kansas

Tuesday, July 28, 2009 | 8:37 p.m. CDT

TOPEKA, Kan. — In the coming weeks and months, Gov. Mark Parkinson, legislative leaders and the head of the Kansas Department of Transportation will begin writing the state's next comprehensive transportation plan. It will be the third since 1989 and perhaps the most crucial of all.

That's because state leaders are hoping it will help pull Kansas out of dire economic straits.

"A highway program is key to economic development. It's going to be part of our recovery," said Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican.

Transportation Department Secretary Deb Miller said another program is needed to continue the momentum of the previous two, which saw new roads built in urban areas, bridges replaced and new surfaces on rural stretches.

"It's about protecting the investment of our transportation system," Miller said.

Still, Morris doesn't anticipate that officials will approve a transportation program as large as the previous two. The economic — and political — challenge is finding the funds.

In the previous two programs, Kansas paid for projects with increased motor fuel taxes, higher vehicle registration fees and bonding.

Morris said he doesn't see much interest among lawmakers in raising income or sales taxes to pay for a new transportation program. He concedes it will be difficult to persuade a majority of legislators to approve billions of new spending, given the economic climate.

Parkinson said he's ready to work with legislative leaders and other key groups across the state. Earlier this year, a task force appointed by then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius submitted its recommendations, among them that Kansas spend $415 million annually on projects to maintain the 10,000-mile state system.

"Even in challenging economic conditions, it's critical that we don't abandon maintaining and improving our infrastructure, particularly roads," Parkinson said. "The recommendations issued earlier this year provide a good basis for developing a strategic transportation approach that will help put people to work."

The discussion comes as Kansas has seen its state revenues plummet in the past two years, leading to cuts in state programs, including the Transportation Department. The agency lost $55 million from its budget in the past year alone, forcing it to scale back on maintenance and rely on federal stimulus dollars to keep projects afloat.

One suggestion on the table is creating more toll roads, particularly in urban areas, Miller said. Kansas currently has just one turnpike, which stretches from the Oklahoma border in the south to Topeka in the north, then to the Kansas City area in the east. However, Morris said the Kansas Turnpike Authority has concerns about adding miles to its system, which is maintained separately from other highway projects.

Federal stimulus money has allowed the Kansas Department of Transportation to move forward with some projects from the 1999 plan that had been halted. The design and engineering of those projects was already done, allowing work to begin as soon as funds became available.

Miller said the department is spending some money to start the design and engineering of other projects, with the hope that once more money is available, contracts can be awarded, putting hundreds of construction workers on the job.

The projects are worth millions and have a ripple effect on the economy. That's why Miller says it isn't "silly" for the department to put plans on paper without a guarantee that funding will appear.


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