City Council starts talking about future of roads, highways

Traffic makes its way through Kellogg near downtown Wichita. (Jan. 3, 2014)
Traffic makes its way through Kellogg near downtown Wichita. (Jan. 3, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

Wichita City Council members got their first look Tuesday at one of the biggest unfunded mandates looming before them: the long-term future of transportation.

Federal and state funding for roads is drying up, reported Gloria Jeff, a transportation engineer with the Wichita Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. Meanwhile, about a third of the drivers who use Wichita roads are out-of-county commuters who pay little in taxes for their upkeep.

That’s one of the dilemmas before Move 2040, the planning group’s ongoing effort to update the region’s 25-year transportation plan. The update is in its early stages, with final approval due by July 2015.

Wichitans drive everywhere, Jeff said, though the city has relatively little traffic congestion and few bottlenecks outside of Kellogg. They don’t use the city’s transit system because it’s inefficient and doesn’t take them where they want to go. They don’t bike or walk because of proximity issues and missing links in the city’s web of trails, paths and sidewalks.

So they want better roads and highways — especially residential streets — in Wichita and in the region, and they want better transportation options for senior citizens and people with disabilities.

But the financial burden will fall to future Wichita taxpayers.

“Our streets and highways and bridges, right now, they are in good shape,” Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said. “But what about 20 years from now? We don’t have the resources for that, or anything of that nature, and we’re certainly going to end up needing that.

“With state dollars dwindling and federal dollars dwindling, this is going to become our responsibility to take care of. So that concerns me. We as a community are spoiled. We enjoy getting from one place to another in 20 to 25 minutes. ”

Jeff’s study backed up Brewer’s assertion about the quality of local roads and bridges: Seventy percent of roads eligible for federal funding are rated very good or good. Only five percent of the bridges in the Wichita region have a sufficiency rating of less than 50, “and that doesn’t mean they’re going to fall down,” Jeff said. “They’re just old.”

Those roads are a magnet for workers who commute daily from outside Sedgwick County: 14,697 from Butler County; 4,224 from Sumner County; 3,665 from Harvey County; 1,553 from Cowley County; 1,527 from Reno County; and 972 from Kingman County, according to the 2012 American Communities Survey.

Council member Jeff Longwell said those commuters should help pay for future road projects.

“One of the concerns I have is trying to figure out a fair and equitable way to pay for these infrastructure improvements, “ he said.

WAMPO officials will begin developing plans and financing for the long-term transportation blueprint in March.

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