TOPEKA — As Kansas lawmakers prepare to adopt a new plan for funding highways and other infrastructure across the state, the Kansas Department of Transportation is shifting gears with its strategy for working with local communities.
KDOT secretary Julie Lorenz said the catalyst for transportation projects used to be job creation. Now, with the state economy stressed by a shortage of workers, the emphasis is on quality of life.
“We are focused on how do we make Kansas communities livelier and more attractive, places where people want to live and raise their kids, and their kids stay and create forever homes," Lorenz said. "Transportation investments can be a part of that.”
With that vision in mind, the agency has crafted a new 10-year plan, which it calls Forward, that would create an evolving pipeline of new projects.
Adoption of the new transportation plan, which appears to have strong bipartisan support, will be a key component of the roughly $8.6 billion state budget that lawmakers will craft throughout the session.
Gov. Laura Kelly plans to phase out the annual sweeps of cash from the "bank of KDOT" that began in 2011 and resulted in the transfer of $2 billion into the state general fund. A new five-year budget outlook produced in December by the Kansas Legislative Research Department shows the annual $238.1 million transfer could end immediately without sending the budget into the red.
The Legislature in the 2019 session gave KDOT a one-time payment of $50 million, which helped fund a popular cost-share program for local projects. KDOT received nearly 92 applications and issued grants for 22 projects, including street repairs, turning lanes, a bike trail in Liberal and improvements at Salina Regional Airport.
The interest in the cost-share program, which required local matching funds, "demonstrates pent-up demand," Lorenz said.
While developing the long-term plan, the agency engaged in 2,000 conversations with meetings across the state. Communities identified $18 billion in wants and needs, Lorenz said, and KDOT is working to sort and prioritize those projects.
“When you think about the economics associated with projects, there is a multiplier effect, so for every dollar you spend on a construction project, you see it ripple through the economy three to four times," Lorenz said. "That’s super helpful in the immediate moment, but where you get the real benefit of transportation investment is when you decrease travel times or you increase travel reliability. That’s what you’re going for in the long term.”
Lorenz said new road projects will have crews burying conduit in the ditch in case a telecom company ever wants to install fiber for broadband network — a cost-effective way to bring high-speed internet to rural areas.
Unlike T-Works, which identified 10 years worth of projects at the start, the proposal for Forward is to identify new projects every two years.
The idea, Lorenz said, is to keep pace with the changing landscapes of communities across Kansas and adapt to accelerating technology. KDOT also hopes the new approach will keep communities and lawmakers engaged with the program for the full decade.
“I am happy to say it’s a really bipartisan issue, and it should be," Lorenz said. "The roads we drive on, they’re not Republican roads or Democratic roads. They’re roads. The needs and the benefits are so obvious. If you’re on a bumpy road or there’s a pothole, or you don’t have a shoulder to pull off on, or you’re stuck in traffic, you know it. It’s not like, ‘I wonder if there’s a problem.’ ”
The state's budget outlook has been bolstered by better-than-expected revenue collections and a $1.1 billion surplus from the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2019.
The five-year profile provided to lawmakers in December assumes an immediate end to highway fund sweeps and adds escalating costs for school funding and the state pension system. Additionally, it would restore about $175 million in annual transfers for legacy programs that offset local taxes and support local road projects. Those programs haven't received funding in 15 years.
With those adjustments, the ending balance is expected to decrease from $945.5 million after the current fiscal year to just $5.5 million in 2024.
“I think as we move forward we’re going to have to still be careful in looking at our budget," said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. "We still have a lot of areas that need attention from the past. But I know that we want to be able to fund transportation, so we want to make sure those dedicated dollars go to transportation.”
She said a lot of legislators also are interested in seeing a comprehensive mental health plan for Kansas that includes regional beds, as well as some other long-term beds.
“It’s not doing our communities any good to either run people through the ER or through the jail system when they’re individuals who need help, and if we can get them back on their feet, get them back to their jobs, then they can start helping and contributing to our communities," McGinn said.
From Kelly's perspective, her administration is performing triage on services across all agencies that were wrecked by years of revenue shortfalls and leadership deficiencies.
Kelly said she approaches the problem "just like an ER doctor, going where the most critical needs are."
"That’s pretty much the way that we have approached it last year, and we’ll continue that," she said. "I mean, we are on the road to recovery, but we’re not out of the ICU yet. We’ll just have to keep taking a close look at critical needs."