Kansas has repeatedly dipped into its highway fund in recent years to balance the budget for all of state government.
Now lawmakers are contemplating a task force to study what that’s meant for the state’s roads and bridges.
Following the borrowing, road projects saw delays across the state. The task force would study the sidelined projects and suggest long-term transportation strategies for Kansas.
Lawmakers in a Senate committee amended the proposal Wednesday to add more representatives from trade groups, growing the size of the task force to more than 30 people. However, they’re waiting before deciding on whether to advance the bill.
“We’re going to let it sit and rest a little bit,” Republican Ways and Means Committee Chair Carolyn McGinn said. “We can continue to do work if we need to — if more information is provided.”
The Kansas Contractors Association says transfers from the highway fund have totaled more than $2 billion since 2010.
The state has delayed dozens of transportation projects in recent years, ranging from simple repavings to major expansion projects, such as updating a two-lane highway to a four-lane expressway near Baxter Springs in southeast Kansas.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee voted to add additional members to the panel representing industries such as cement and paving, as well as people appointed by a transportation advocacy group.
Republican Sen. John Skubal is pushing the bill. He said the state needs need to focus on reliable transportation funding because skimping on projects and maintenance now will create bigger costs in the future.
“I would like to get a list of projects that Kansans think that we should be doing,” Skubal said this week, “and then start looking at the funding portion of this.”
Skubal said the task force would look at whether the state has followed through with promises from the last 10-year transportation plan, known as T-Works.
He wants to consider new ways to pay for roads, such as charging drivers to access express lanes on busy highways. Lawmakers could also look for partnerships where projects are jointly funded by the state, local governments and private organizations that would benefit from the new roads.
Whatever the approach, he said, it can’t be the practice in recent years of “sweeps” that divert money from the highway fund to balance general state spending.
“We know that if the sweeps continue, we’re not going to have a program that is workable,” Skubal said.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning said the bill has good prospects, but he’s not so bullish on the idea of boosting funding for the Kansas Department of Transportation.
Denning said lawmakers were optimistic about the state’s finances at the end of the 2017 session. They had reversed many of the 2012 tax cuts after several years of budget deficits.
Then, the state’s highest court ruled that funding for schools was not adequate.
“We had thought that we had solved the tax-and-budget problem when we went home...until we got the new Supreme Court ruling,” Denning said.
Denning said tackling schools will take priority this year and may derail proposals to boost spending on roads.
The question now is whether lawmakers who want to look at highway funding will have any dollars available for the programs in the coming years.
Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio, a partner in the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @KPRKoranda.
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