The Kansas Department of Transportation will delay several road projects scheduled for fiscal years 2017 and 2018, including the next leg in what has been called the Northwest Passage in an effort to help balance the state’s budget. However, city and economic development officials fear delay is merely a euphemism for cancel.
KDOT’s announcement came Wednesday, in line with measures outlined by State Budget Director Shawn Sullivan. Previously-programmed modernization and expansion projects will be delayed until remaining State Highway Fund revenues allow or new money is made available.
But, the grassroots group Economic Lifelines called on legislators to reject these efforts. Economic Lifelines is the statewide coalition of organizations and community groups, including the City of Great Bend, which provides support for transportation programs in Kansas.
“KDOT has helped many, many areas of the state, and has helped this community in many ways as well,” said Great Bend City Administrator Howard Partington. It is unfortunate to see funds siphoned away from the agency that has done so much and has such an impact.
“Over the last six years, the transportation budget – taxpayer dollars which ensure the safety of Kansans and the viability of our economy – has been used to fill holes in the budget of various shapes and sizes,” said Economic Lifelines Chief Executive Michael Johnston. “This has always come with the promise that critical transportation projects would not be impacted significantly.”
This time, the cut is too large and Johnston believes this promise has been broken. “With this latest announcement, the administration has finally owned up to the fact that their transportation policies have significantly impaired T-WORKS and killed good jobs.
“These policies have not delayed projects, they have effectively cancelled them. It is time for legislators to understand the gravity of the situation and we call on them to find other ways to balance the state budget.”
He was referring to the Transportation Works for Kansas (T-WORKS) Program. This is funded by a dedicated sales tax, but Senate Bill 463 would, among other things, sweep this money from KDOT into the general fund.
“The T-WORKS program has been a proven job creator and has added value and economic activity during a time when our state has struggled,” Johnston said. “We urge Kansas legislators to go back to the drawing board and explore alternative methods to balancing the budget.”
What is at stake
Modernization and expansion projects are generally the larger projects under the current T-WORKS transportation program. Modernization includes work such as the addition of shoulders, passing lanes and remediation of hills and curves. Expansion projects add capacity to the highway system.
The delays include 14 projects in FY 2017 that have an estimated construction cost of $271 million; 9 projects in FY 2018 that have an estimated construction cost of $247 million; and two projects in FY 2019 that have an estimated construction cost of $35 million.
Among these are two modernization projects on K-14, one in Reno County and one in Rice County. They involve constructing a two-lane highway on a four-lane right of way from southeast of Nickerson northwest to the Reno-Rice county line and on to north of Sterling. The total cost for the 15-mile stretch would be almost $93 million, and bids were set for letting in October.
This is a big deal, Partington said, because it is the next step in the much-talked about Northwest Passage connecting Hutchinson to, eventually, Great Bend and, possibly, on to Hays.
“That’s a real disappointment,” he said. This project has been in the works for years and it hardly seems fair to see it shelved.
What is being done
“Despite the delays, the overall good condition of the 10,000-mile state highway system won’t be impacted since KDOT’s preservation projects will be let to contract as scheduled and will be funded at the $400 million per year level. Nor will these delays affect projects that are already underway.” said Kansas Transportation Secretary Mike King.
The preservation program covers a range of work, including pavement and bridge repair, resurfacing and replacement.
“I also want to assure our city and county partners that there will be no change in the amount of revenue they receive from the Special City County Highway Fund,” Secretary King said.
Annually, KDOT shares about a third, or almost $150 million, of the state fuels tax revenue with local governments through SCCHF. The project delays also won’t affect other KDOT programs that fund aviation, rail, public transit and more.
This story was updated on April 22 to correct the number of projects by year.