Politics & Government

Kansas has spent $3 billion meant for roads on other things. Stopping will be hard

Gov. Jeff Colyer has proposed ending sweeps of Kansas’s highway fund, though the state budget relies of the money.
Gov. Jeff Colyer has proposed ending sweeps of Kansas’s highway fund, though the state budget relies of the money. The Wichita Eagle

More than $3.3 billion of your tax dollars meant for highways have been spent elsewhere over the past 20 years.

It has gone to shore up other areas of state spending. In turn, the state is delaying nearly two dozen projects to repair or expand highways at the moment.

Calls to stop using highway funding for other purposes are mounting, and now, Kansas’s new governor has joined in.

"We must end the highway funding sweeps and build an effective plan that promotes economic development and strengthens our transportation network," Gov. Jeff Colyer said in his first major speech to lawmakers last week.

But that’s easier said than done.

Colyer offered no concrete proposal or timeline for ending the shift of money from highways to other areas. Former Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget proposal for next year continues taking money from highways , and Brownback said Colyer took the lead in its development.

Asked for clarification, spokeswoman Kara Fullmer said Friday the governor is calling for a task force on transportation "to identify the best path forward, including considering appropriate timing for ending the use of sweeps."

Taking money from the highway fund makes it easier for lawmakers to balance the overall budget. Brownback relied on such fund transfers to help weather years of less-than-expected revenue.

The state’s revenue situation is improving after the Legislature last year repealed much of Brownback’s signature tax cuts. But new pressures loom.

A Kansas Supreme Court decision that found public schools are inadequately funded could require lawmakers to boost spending on education. Before he resigned, Brownback proposed phasing in a $600 million increase over five years, but didn’t say how he would pay for $400 million of that.

Some lawmakers have already said they can’t see how the state would pay for such an increase. They would have an even more difficult time finding money to pay for it if they can no longer use highway money to help fund the overall budget.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers who spoke to The Eagle said it’s unrealistic to end the highway transfers immediately. The state’s best hope is to lower the amount over time, they say.

Contractors play a significant role in many highway projects. The Kansas Contractors Association appreciated Colyer’s statement, said Michael White, the organization’s director.

But he also acknowledged ending the highway transfers will take time.

"We’ve been pretty clear that we would like to see a process or a plan to start moving in that direction, but I don’t think there’s any contractors in Kansas that expect it to flip over to zero overnight," White said.

Currently, the Kansas Department of Transportation has 23 delayed projects. The agency began announcing project delays in 2016 amid a budget gap of $350 million that was later resolved by lawmakers.

The current delayed projects are valued at more than $525 million, according to a list provided by KDOT on Friday.

They include 10 projects to update existing roads, and 13 expansion projects that add lanes or new interchanges. Among the delayed projects:

  • Modernize K-14 in Reno County. Estimated construction cost of $47 million.
  • Modernize US-281 in Russell County. Estimated construction cost of $39.9 million.
  • Expand US-50 in Ford County. Estimated construction cost of $37 million.

Colyer’s call to end highway fund sweeps comes as lawmakers begin to look at developing a new statewide transportation plan to replace the current program called T-Works.

T-Works has improved more than 12,400 miles of state highways and 829 Kansas bridges, KDOT said in its 2018 annual report. T-Works is beginning to approach the end of its life, however. Lawmakers approved it in 2010 and it was envisioned as a 10-year program.

The Senate passed a bill last week to create a transportation task force that will identify projects for a new plan. The task force would also evaluate whether current funding is sufficient, and report back to lawmakers in January 2019.

The bill now heads to the House.

Ending the highway transfers would allow the KDOT to work with the task force and others on new projects, agency secretary Richard Carlson said in a written statement. The agency said he was unavailable for an interview on Friday.

"With additional highway funding, KDOT would work with the Kansas Legislature, including the Transportation Task Force, the Governor’s Office, our Kansas communities and other stakeholders to plan and prioritize projects that we could start construction on," Carlson said.

Rep. Richard Proehl, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said ending the transfers would allow the state to do more work each year on preserving roads. Performing all of the needed preservation work costs about $380 million a year, White said.

Still, the vision of fully devoting the highway fund to highways appears years away, according to lawmakers.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said the aim of ending sweeps is laudable, but will take time. Kansas should take less and less each year, so that within two or three years the money is back to being used by KDOT, he said.

"We need to begin to wean off that money from the transportation fund," said Ward, who is also running for governor.

Proehl sounded a similar note.

"We would love to see that," Proehl said of ending the transfers. "Unfortunately, at this point in time, I don’t see how that will happen."

If you were traveling on Kellogg or I-235 this weekend only to find it closed at the I-235 interchange here's why. Constructions crews from Dondlinger Construction were busy installing 12 63,000-pound bridge beams. (February 2018)

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman