From the runway project at the Great Bend Municipal Airport to the neighboring transload facility to the current improvements at 10th and Grant, the fingerprints of the Kansas Department of Transportation are all over this area. This was the message new Kansas Transportation Secretary Julie Lorenz received as she visited town Monday afternoon.
The day started with a public reception for Lorenz at the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce office. Then, Chamber of Commerce President Jan Peters, along with city and county officials and business leaders, took Lorenz on a community tour, including stops at the airport and the transload site, both beneficiaries of KDOT funding.
They rode in a bus from Sunflower Diversified Services, whose transportation program is partially funded by KDOT.
On their way to the airport, they passed through the 10th and Grant Street project, funded through a KDOT grant.
“Great Bend has always been an important voice at the table,” Lorenz said. This voice will as important as ever as she and all of KDOT try to restore the public’s faith in the department lost under the Gov. Sam Brownback administration when funds were siphoned away from the agency to fill gaps caused by sales tax shortfalls ($2 billion since 2010).
“We are coming back,” she said. “I am thrilled to be back.”
Gov. Laura Kelly appointed Lorenz to lead the Kansas Department of Transportation to succeed Richard Carlson, who retired on Jan. 11.
While new to this position, this is her second tour of duty for KDOT, serving as the director of public affairs and special assistant from 2003 to 2011 for then Secretary Deb Miller.
“I want communities to thrive,” she said. “I want to strengthen KDOT. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“KDOT has funded significant projects in Great Bend over the years,” Peters said. “Julie was always a part of it.”
Lorenz has said she supports Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposed four-year plan to close what has been dubbed the “Bank of KDOT.” She would begin by stopping the transfer of $100 million in sales tax revenue from fuel taxes and vehicle fees earmarked for the KDOT that has been tapped for other areas of the state budget.
The gradual cessation of withdrawals from KDOT would let the agency restart work on 21 highway projects put on hold during the Brownback administration. Among those frozen projects was the T-Works-funded Northwest Passage, a proposed diagonal corridor from Wichita northwest to the cities of Hutchinson, Great Bend and Hays, first considered by the Kansas Legislature in 1986.
An estimated $560 million is needed to wrap up all these initiatives. The proposed transportation budget comes in at about $160 million.
“We have a lot to make up,” Lorenz said. “We need to honor our commitments to Kansas communities and we need the money to do it.”
But, it will take time to play catch-up. Any growth must be sustainable and cooperation and patience are needed from project stakeholders.
“One of our state’s most valued assets is our highways,” Lorenz said. There are about 140,000 miles of highways under KDOT jurisdiction with a daily average of 88,248,910 vehicle-miles.
But, they’ve been allowed to deteriorate, with only superficial repairs being made due to the lack of funds and a depleted department workforce made smaller as 600 employees have left because of fiscal uncertainty and low pay.
Other topics addressed included over-weight and over-size load permits (a big issue for the wind energy business), bridges, how to equitably charge electric car owners for road use since they don’t pay fuel taxes, and the state’s toll road system and antiquated toll policy. These are all the subject of legislation facing state lawmakers this year.
But, Lorenz said there is a “good vibe” in the Legislature. “There is a renewed interest and energy behind transportation this session.”
Last summer, the 2018 Joint Legislative Transportation Vision Task Force was formed, Lorenz said.
The task force was comprised of state senators and representatives, including 109th District Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, who district covers much of northern, eastern and western Barton County. Among the non-legislative members is Great Bend’s Kip Spray of Venture Corporation, also with the Kansas Contractors Association.
The goal was to evaluate the T-Works program and the current state of the transportation system, identify other possible priorities, and assess funding. The report was ready for the 2019 legislative session.
It recommended $500 million annually for road preservation, $500 million to complete the T-Works projects, and $20 million for transit, air, rail and bicycle projects and increase funding to communities for connecting projects.
“It’s vital we deliver the T-Works projects so we can move on to other projects,” she said. Lorenz was involved in development of T-Works in 2010.
Administered through the Kansas Department of Transportation, the Transportation Works for Kansas (T-Works) program is a 10-year, $8.2 billion program passed by the Legislature in 2010. Community input and other research identified priority projects in each of KDOT’s six districts covering all 105 counties.
The group held meetings around the state last October. Peters joined a coalition of area officials in testifying before it in Newton to resurrect the Northwest Passage project.
As for the transload facility west of town, KDOT contributed $3 million in state funds to the $8 million project, with the rest contributed by private industry. The investment enhances shipping options to better move goods from one mode of transportation to another, in this case, from truck to rail and rail to truck.
Sitting in the bus with a view of some of the 2,100 wind turbine parts stored at the transload’s Great Bend and Pawnee Rock locations, Lorenz noted the importance of all transportation modes, as well as the many uses for roadways.
“Roads have two purposes,” she said. They move people and they move equipment.
The key is to balance these, she said.
Kansas now leads the nation in wind power production, and more of these giant white machines are rolling into the site. But, there are also massive stacks of rock and aggregate, used in construction, and this is the other main commodity occupying a portion of the site’s 29 acres in the airport area.
At the airport, they looked at the ongoing restoration of the northern 2,351 feet of the main east-west runway. Great Bend received a grant through the KDOT Aviation Division covering 90 percent of the $444,891 total, with the city covering about $45,000.
This followed the work on the southern 5,500 feet of the runway that fell under a Federal Aviation Administration project. The city received a $6,734,361 grant that covered 90 percent of the work, with the city paying $782,000.