Diverted Highway Dollars Help Patch Kansas Budget — But Not Highways
Dennis Wright isn’t alone.
He’s one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Kansas residents and public officials waiting for the state to solve its money problems so that dozens of highway projects that have been indefinitely delayed can get going again.
“People are incredulous,” Wright says. “Our roads are going to pot. You can drive anywhere in the state and see problems.”
For Wright, a retired welder from Council Grove, the problem is Kansas Highway 177. It’s a scenic two-lane road that runs through the Flint Hills from El Dorado to Manhattan.
The stretch from Council Grove to Manhattan is dangerous, Wright says, noting that it’s the route his son takes to work.
The highway is narrow and has no shoulders. Rollover accidents are common due to steep embankments. In addition, a series of curves makes it virtually impossible to pass slow-moving vehicles and farm machinery, Wright says.
“As you drive it, you’ll notice that 90 percent of the time there’s no place to go,” Wright says. “If you’ve got trouble, you’ve really got trouble because the highway drops off steeply. It’s just the scene of many accidents out here.”
From 2011 through 2015, 439 of the 916 highway fatalities recorded in Kansas occurred on roads like K-177: two-lane highways with no controlled access.
Those numbers and increasing traffic made K-177 a prime candidate for a safety upgrade in 2010 when Kansas lawmakers passed T-WORKS, a 10-year, $8 billion transportation program. Engineers from the Kansas Department of Transportation devised a plan to make the road safer by rebuilding a 24-mile section from Council Grove to I-70. It called for widening the highway, adding shoulders and redesigning sections to improve the visibility around curves.
Download a 2012 KDOT informational document on planned K-177 improvements.
The $29 million project was penciled in the T-WORKS schedule, with construction set to begin in March 2017.
That didn’t happen.
A precipitous drop in state revenues triggered by deep income tax cuts passed in 2012 at Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s insistence led lawmakers to divert billions of dollars from KDOT in subsequent years to patch gaping holes in the budget.
The steady loss of funding forced KDOT in April 2016 to delay 24 expansion and modernization projects, including the K-177 upgrade. Since then, the list of postponed projects has grown to more than 50.
“We’re paying a terrible price for some very poor decisions,” says first-term Rep. Dave Baker, a Council Grove Republican, referring to the tax cuts and the refusal by Brownback and conservative Republican leaders to reverse course.
Baker is a member of a large group of moderate Republicans sent to Topeka in November by voters weary of the state’s budget problems. He says he’s committed to stabilizing the state’s revenue picture in the hope that construction can proceed on at least some of the highway projects that KDOT has delayed.
“We’re going to get a handle on this and get things turned around,” Baker says. “We’ll get Kansas back on track.”
A Slow Road Back?
But it could be a slow road back. Lawmakers are struggling to pass a budget and tax package to address a projected $900 million revenue shortfall over the next two budget years. They also must find a way to generate millions in additional funding for public schools to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court order.
Given that reality, lawmakers will probably choose to divert another $1 billion from KDOT over the next two budget years, foreclosing the possibility that work can resume on any of the delayed projects.
So, Baker and others have shifted their focus to getting KDOT the money it needs to adequately maintain the 10,000-mile state highway system.
“We need to get that done,” he says.
KDOT needs a minimum of $380 million a year for maintenance and preservation work, says Jerry Younger, an engineer who was the department’s deputy secretary until he retired last year.
But it’s been years since the cash-strapped agency has been able to spend that much. And it has allocated only $44 million for maintenance in the budget year that begins July 1.
Brownback and KDOT Secretary Richard Carlson argue there is no cause for alarm. They say that 30 years of investment in the Kansas highway system should have it in good enough shape to weather a couple more years of reduced maintenance. Carlson says that more than 90 percent of the state's highways are rated in "good" condition.
Those rating scores can be deceiving, Younger says, because highways can go downhill fast if neglected.
“There is this misconception that a road gradually deteriorates, and quite honestly that’s not how it works,” Younger says. “Typically what happens is the road is … good for a period of time. But when it begins deteriorating … it deteriorates pretty quickly.”
KDOT uses a specially equipped van to annually inspect every mile of the state highway system to determine where maintenance is most urgently needed, Younger says.
“It’s important to catch problems so you can do the right action at the right time,” he says, adding that every dollar spent on timely maintenance prevents having to spend five times as much on reconstruction.
Gas Tax A Tough Sell
The lobbying group that represents the highway contractors in Kansas is seeking an increase in the motor fuels tax to generate the maintenance money that KDOT needs. They initially called for an increase of 11 cents a gallon but are also supporting a bill that would raise the tax by only 5 cents a gallon.
“The key reason we want a gas tax — and it’s really important — is that it cannot be diverted to other needs in state government,” says Bob Totten, chief lobbyist for the Kansas Contractors Association.
The gas tax is proving to be a tough sell to lawmakers also being asked to raise income taxes to balance the budget and fund public schools.
So, Economic Lifelines, another transportation lobbying organization, is backing an alternative proposal that has been adopted by budget-writing committees in both houses. It would allow KDOT to issue another $400 million in bonds over the next two years to fund maintenance work.
Sen. John Skubal, a freshman Republican from Overland Park, doesn’t much like the idea of using borrowed money to pay for maintenance. But he says it appears to be the only option.
“That’s very bothersome for me,” Skubal says. “But we need to take care of the infrastructure that’s been left to us. I think the test of a society isn’t what you build new for yourself, but how you take care of what’s been left to you.”
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks.