As state lawmakers continue to eye the Kansas Department of Transportation as “the bank of KDOT” and defund it to help balance the budget, many roads and highways, and other much-used programs such as air travel and public transportation are growing increasingly in peril, officials say. This is being felt in many ways.
According to analysis of United States Department of Labor data released this week by the Associated General Contractors of America, Kansas lost the highest percentage of construction jobs in January 2016 and was one of six states in the U.S. to see a drop in construction employment over the past year.
The number of construction jobs lost in the Sunflower State was 4.7 percent. This comes to 175,000 Kansas jobs.
This comes as no surprise to Kip Spray, president of Great Bend-based Venture Corporation. Venture is one of the state’s largest road construction firms.
“We do 25 percent of our work down in Oklahoma right now,” Spray said. Venture employs about 175 people during the summer and if it wasn’t for these jobs, they would have to hire only about 130.
But, the problem has a much broader reach.
Why is this an issue?
Bob Totten, vice president of the Kansas Contractors Association, said the enormous cuts to the Kansas road and bridge funding over recent years is also to blame for the lack of construction jobs across the state.
“Yes, we can associate Kansas’s drop in employment with the oil and gas industry struggles, but we all know there is more to it, at least in our state,” Totten said. “More than $2.1 billion has been diverted from Kansas’ transportation program over the past six years, and money continues to be taken from our roads and bridges to fund the general budget.”
“This shortfall is in direct correlation to the lack of construction jobs,” Totten added. “If the money isn’t funding much-needed projects, the jobs aren’t going to be there either. It is time our state leaders close the ‘bank of KDOT’ and realize the more they withdraw, the more Kansans will suffer.”
Spray put this into prospective. Normally, KDOT aims for 1,200 miles of highway preservation projects annually, but this year that number has been reduced to 400.
In addition, of the 2,500 bridges in Kansas, 2,300 are structurally deficient and 1,700 are obsolete, he said.
Kansas roads have long been a matter of pride for the state, he said. “But, that’s going to turn pretty fast. Our highway system as we know it is at the end of its life.”
The money is being siphoned away from KDOT by the Legislature to plug gaping holes in the state’s budget. Spray and others blame this at least in part on the need to make up for revenue lost through income tax breaks approved by lawmakers and the governor.
Between the years of 2011 and 2017, an estimated $2.2 million will be transferred from KDOT to the general fund. There is also a bill in the works to take another $500 million from KDOT annually in 2018-20.
This effectively kills the popular T-Works program. Spray said. Transportation Works for Kansas is a 10-year, $8 billion transportation program designed to create jobs, preserve highway infrastructure, and provide multi-modal economic development opportunities across the state, including several projects in Barton County.
State lawmakers want to take the sales tax used to fund T-Works, which generates about $500 million each year, and reallocate it to the general fund.
Closer to home
“KDOT plays a big role in maintaining and improving streets, highways, airports, railroads, and public transportation in our communities,” said Great Bend City Administrator Howard Partington. “Sometimes we forget all of the ways KDOT touches our lives.”
This is why Partington testified March 15 before the House Taxation Committee to urge members to properly fund KDOT. “Their programs are vital to the future of our cities, counties and state.”
If lawmakers continue to take money from KDOT, the state will lose many jobs and push maintenance of our infrastructure to future generations, Partington said. “The jobs that were lost due to taking money away from KDOT would have sure made our state economy look better if KDOT would have had the money for projects.”
Partington said the city has five KDOT projects that are currently in the works.
There are three City Connecting Link Resurfacing Program (KLINK) projects that are used for resurfacing the state and federal highways that pass through Great Bend for 2015, 2016 and 2017. Between the three KLINKs, the city has resurfacing on various portions of 10th Street (U.S. 56, K-96, K-156), Main Street (U.S. 281) and K-96 (from 10th Street to the north city limits).
Two of these will most likely be constructed in 2016. The other one will most likely be constructed in 2017.
There are also two Geometric Improvement projects. One project is the work on Railroad Avenue and Main Street, and that work is currently being constructed. The other is an improvement to the intersection of Grant Street and 10th Street. That project will most likely be constructed in 2018.
In addition to the above listed projects, Partington said the city has the transload project. In that project the money from KDOT will go to the Watco for rail track improvements and other rail related infrastructure.
The funding for the above projects should be safe, Partington said. But, there is no guarantee.
On a regional basis, Partington said there is the long-awaited Northwest Passage T-Works project to realign K-96 from Nickerson to Sterling. This was a part of the 2010 TWorks Program that was adopted by the Legislature.
Much of the work on various projects has already been completed, he said. The project from Nickerson to Sterling is one of the last to be let for bids and constructed.
This project provides a bypass around Nickerson and Sterling and a direct route between the two cities instead of the longer currently squared-off route.
It is to be constructed in 2017. But, funding for this project could be in jeopardy if additional money is taken from KDOT.
KDOT also makes improvements to the state and federal highways leading into Great Bend on a normal maintenance schedule.
Beyond roads, the city also benefits from KDOT money for the airport in the form of grants to support our infrastructure at the facility, the city administrator said. And, the Great Bend Senior Center transportation programs are also partially funded by KDOT. “Without KDOT assistance, these programs would be very hard to fund.
“You can see the vast importance of KDOT to our communities and state,” Partington said. “I have only touched on some of their programs, there are many more.”
Elsewhere in the nation
Kansas Contractors Association officials said the states with the lowest demand for construction are energy producing states, which have been hurt due to the steep drop in oil and gas drilling and coal mining. Other states that also saw a drop in construction jobs in January were Virginia (-3.4 percent), Kentucky(-2.7 percent), North Dakota (-2.5 percent) and Arkansas (-2.2 percent). States that added the most construction jobs were Tennessee (3.4 percent), Louisiana (2.4 percent), North Carolina (2 percent) and Florida (1.8 percent).