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Wichita short billions in funding to maintain public assets, panel finds

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, at 6:27 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, at 7:56 p.m.

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Wichitans have put off maintaining streets, water and sewer systems and public facilities and will need to pay billions over the next two decades, according to a preliminary report offered Tuesday.

The city’s Community Investments Plan Steering Committee has concluded that Wichita is $9 billion to $10 billion short of what it needs to maintain and enhance existing public assets over the next 20 years. The committee is leading work on a new comprehensive plan through 2035.

City Hall faces several projects it needs to complete “with huge price tags – a new water source, jobs recruitment, updating water and sewer systems,” Mayor Carl Brewer said.

“We’ve put them off for too long,” Brewer said. “We didn’t want the challenges. We didn’t want the tax bills. But now, to maintain our quality of life, we’ve got to catch up.”

The steering committee says the city expects about $4 billion in revenue over the next two decades to bring existing infrastructure up to standards, replace depreciating infrastructure, expand that system to support growth and enhance existing facilities to improve the quality of life.

The city needs between $13 billion and $14 billion over in the same time frame to bring infrastructure and facilities up to speed, the committee estimates. For example, 38 percent of the city’s streets, utilities and facilities are in deficient or fair condition due to “decades of under-investment in infrastructure maintenance,” according to the report.

One big driver for the shortfall, the committee’s report indicates, is diminishing federal and state program funding, slow job and population growth, and static property values that hold local government revenues flat – all products of the recession that began here in 2008.

The goal of the plan is to close the gap between the city’s infrastructure needs and forecast revenues by setting priorities and estimating costs.

“We are in a different era,” said John Schlegel, the city and county’s planning director.

“We think the question that needs to be addressed in this plan is how best to grow, how much to invest and where best to invest public funds.”

But Wichita architect Joe Johnson, who serves on the planning committee, said the group isn’t there yet.

“I don’t know how people get their arms around all this yet,” he said. “We need to do the work ... to give people something clear to comment on.”

The steering committee has settled on three growth scenarios for Wichita for the next 20 years, Schlegel said:

• Maintaining the emphasis on suburban development with little activity in the city’s core, the pattern of the past 20 years.

This scenario proposes 403 miles of new local streets and water, sewer and stormwater lines, along with 42 miles of new arterial streets, water and sewer mains and more than 7 million gallons a day of increased sewer treatment capacity.

• Constrained suburban growth, allowing for specific issues that have arisen as Wichita has spread out, primarily to the east.

The only direct change from the suburban development is 30 miles, rather than 42, of new arterial streets, water and sewer mains.

City growth has bumped against the rural water districts on the east side, according to city staff. For developers to develop on the east side and have city water and sewer, those rural water districts want compensation for the loss of their service area. That can raise the cost for developments – costs that would be paid first by the city, then passed on to developers.

This scenario also includes the indefinite postponement of the $400 million northwest bypass, based on a lack of state and federal funding for major infrastructure projects.

• A mix of suburban and core growth, targeting a larger core area of the city than just downtown. Included would be 369 miles of new local streets and water, sewer and stormwater lines.

This option includes service enhancements and system improvements for the financially embattled Wichita Transit system.

The comprehensive plan update is required by state statutes to guide spending on public infrastructure and facilities. An update of the current 1993 joint comprehensive plan is overdue, Schlegel said.

The remainder of this year will be devoted to choosing one of the three scenarios and developing a draft plan, using input from the community. Work will also begin on plans for the county’s suburban cities.

Finalization and adoption of the comprehensive plan is scheduled for 2015.

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @bwilsoneagle.

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