September 6, 2013

Message from transportation summit: Local governments must share in cost of road projects

State officials had a clear message for cities and counties this week at a transportation summit in Emporia: Local governments need to share more of the cost of major road projects.

State officials had a clear message for cities and counties this week at a transportation summit in Emporia: Local governments need to share more of the cost of major road projects.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner and Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton attended the summit, entitled “The Future of Kansas Transportation,” at Emporia State University. Moderators included Gov. Sam Brownback and state transportation secretary Mike King.

The meeting was a first-time shot at planning the state’s future transportation projects, a chance for state officials to get local input.

The takeaway, Norton and Meitzner said, is that future state-city and county partnerships for roads, bridges and other transportation projects will require more local dollars as state government slashes spending.

And projects will have to be evaluated more closely for potential economic impact, which could set up an urban-rural struggle in Kansas.

“I think that a part of the conversation is there’s going to be less money in the pot,” Norton said, “and more may fall to the locals to figure out how to keep our infrastructure in good shape.

“We’re still going to have some state and federal money, but it’s going to have to be used more strategically, prioritized more. There will be a strong push-pull on where to put the money that we have available, where it makes the most economic sense.”

KDOT deputy secretary Jerry Younger said Friday that increased local participation — such as the $11 million that Sedgwick County added to the I-235-Kellogg interchange project — enables the state to better leverage its transportation money.

“That message is the same,” Younger said. “As we look at projects in the future, assemble funding packages, we’re going to look at all the opportunities that exist for assembling them. That includes local funding.”

Local funding enhances a transportation project’s chance of being selected for state funding by KDOT, Younger said.

“Whether there’s a higher level than in the past, I would say that the higher percentage that is offered up from the local end, the more attractive it is and the higher probability there is to create the funding package necessary for that project,” Younger said.

King also suggested Thursday that transportation funding could include a greater look at tolls on some roads.

The summit included some direction on the future of passenger rail in Wichita, Meitzner said: the necessity for the state and Wichita to financially partner if the extension of Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City goes forward. Limited federal financial help will be available.

“They feel that help from the federal side is going to be minimal,” he said. “We’ve kind of got to take those projects on more ourselves because the federal appetite for funding is waning.”

That doesn’t mean that grant funding, like the annual federal TIGER stimulus grants, won’t be available, Meitzner said.

“If you can get your project close enough to lure grant funding, shovel-ready enough, then there will be another round of TIGER,” he said. The city learned this week that it wouldn’t receive federal TIGER funding this year to finish planning the possible extension of the Heartland Flyer line.

“The challenge is going to be if we can decide as a state, a legislature and the city that we do need to be a part of passenger rail expansion. Then, we can discuss a financial way to skin this cat. And there’s a lot of ways to do that. We’re not going to ask the state to carry the whole expense.”

Norton, a former president of the Kansas Association of Counties, said he’s concerned about the possible urban-rural showdown that slashing transportation spending could produce.

“That’s the great debate,” he said. “There’s a push to save rural Kansas and the economic lifelines part of that, but how much sense will that make when you’re dealing with rural areas without much population?

“I don’t want to land on either side of the fence, because the rural areas are important. Urban areas, though, if you listen to what Dr. (John) Bardo says at Wichita State, we like to think we’re a rural society in Kansas, but the truth is most of the population is in an extended metro corridor along I-35 and I-70 from Wichita through Emporia, Topeka to Kansas City.”

Economic development will be a focus of future transportation projects, Meitzner said.

“It was eye-opening in the value of all the planning that goes into even expanding one highway,” he said. “What’s the economic impact of expanding that highway? The ability to move freight, be it rail or a highway, is vitally important to our economy – some serious economic impact.”

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