Business Q & A

A conversation with ... Mike King

Mike King was doing what a small-business owner does, running his construction firm in McPherson, when the telephone rang this spring.

A few weeks later, King had a new job: secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation.

King, 52, a Hesston native who grew up in the family construction industry and branched out – including a stop in business development at Wichita’s Hutton Construction –has been running Gov. Sam Brownback’s transportation department for a month.

“Surprised? Sure,” King said about the first call from Topeka about the job. “My first reaction was excitement for the potential to help serve the state in a role I think I’m very comfortable in. … I think I fit the governor’s profile: small businessmen in management roles.”

Wichita is a priority for King going forward as KDOT attacks road projects throughout the state, with the I-235 and Kellogg interchange, design support for the U.S. 54 freeway conversion on the east side of Wichita, and a right-of-way match for the Northwest Bypass among the priorities.

“Wichita is an economic driver for the state,” King said. “Because of that, the T-Works projects selected for Wichita are important not just for the region, but for the state economy.”

King returned to Hesston on Thursday for a reception with Harvey County leaders at Dyck Arboretum.

What led you to accept the KDOT position?

“I think all of us at different points want to be involved in public service. It was a great time for me to step aside from my business. I have a great group running it day to day for me, so when I got the call, I knew I didn’t have to worry about my company and could focus on helping Gov. Brownback and his administration further his road map for Kansas.”

What are the strengths you bring to the position?

“I think that a strength I bring to the office is knowledge of the product. I understand construction, the engineering phase, dealing with the people and the public. There are many stakeholders involved in these agencies, just like the stakeholders in private business.”

What are some of the challenges you face in your new job?

“Challenge number one is a steady source of revenue, so we know how to plan long term our projects coming out in 2013 and 2014.”

City officials have expressed some interest in the ongoing passenger rail talks between our state, Oklahoma and Texas. Where do you stand on those talks?

“We have two issues when we talk about passenger rail. First is the Heartland Flyer extension coming out of Texas through Oklahoma City into southern Kansas.

“Through the T-Works program, we don’t have a financial mechanism right now to pursue passenger rail. We’re going to need additional funding to do that. For example, there’s an environmental study that will be needed before we can get serious, and I’ve been talking with my Oklahoma counterpart to see if they’re willing to share in that funding. So far, Oklahoma has not been willing to take part in their share of the funding. This looks like a very long-term proposal.

“And then there’s the Southwest Chief on the BNSF rails west of Newton. Currently, Amtrak has downgraded the tracks to 60 mph for their condition and they’re not willing to upgrade because they don’t need (to for) their own trains. There’s potential for a route through Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas through Amarillo. I’m talking with my Colorado and New Mexico counterparts to see if we can work together and to assess their positions. It’s going to be costly. BNSF has publicly stated the tracks will require a $100 million upgrade.”

Assess the governor’s commitment to the T-Works program.

“At the news conference announcing my appointment, the governor reinforced his commitment to the program through the 10-year, $8 billion program passed by the Legislature in 2010.

“We have the opportunity through T-Works to provide jobs through every county in the state, with a minimum of $8 million spent during the program in each of the state’s 105 counties.”