Politics & Government

Budget fight revolves around Sedgwick County roads and bridges

A truck goes over a small bridge on South Clifton just south of 55th Street on Tuesday afternoon. The recommended county budget calls this bridge “structurally deficient.” (Aug. 4, 2015)
A truck goes over a small bridge on South Clifton just south of 55th Street on Tuesday afternoon. The recommended county budget calls this bridge “structurally deficient.” (Aug. 4, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

Quiet county roads and busy bridges are causing a loud debate over the Sedgwick County budget.

As the budget process enters its final week, roads and bridges in mostly rural parts of the county are proving to be one of the most contentious issues dividing county commissioners.

The county is poised to spend $19.2 million in cash for roads and bridges, with $3.29 million going to a fund for yet-to-be-decided projects. The total spending for roads and bridges could approach $58.3 million when $39 million in state and federal money for the I-235 and Kellogg interchange is included.

That $3.29 million cash reserve replaces the amount the county normally would borrow by issuing bonds for road and bridge projects. A majority of commissioners wants to move away from borrowing for most projects.

Commissioners are debating the size and necessity of such a reserve.

Commissioner Dave Unruh said shrinking the reserve or borrowing for some projects would prevent cuts to health, economic development and cultural spending. Other commissioners say that would hurt the quality of the county’s road and bridge system.

“Which roads and bridges would you allow to deteriorate?” Commission Chairman Richard Ranzau asked Unruh after he outlined his proposal in a meeting last week.

But what projects the cash reserve would pay for won’t be decided until the final budget is approved Aug. 12. It’s not clear which projects would be delayed if the reserve were shrunk.

“I can’t tell you which projects are in and which projects are out until (commissioners) tell me what the number is,” said Public Works director David Spears, referring to the number of dollars in the reserve.

Potential projects

Those road and bridge projects could be pulled from the county’s capital improvement watchlist, where potential projects are identified for future budgets.

Three bridge projects, one road project and a road replacement program were originally included on a $4 million list of projects that the county normally funds through bonds.

Two of those projects, the road replacement program and a Clifton Avenue bridge south of Oaklawn, are already included in the recommended budget.

The remaining projects – two new bridge surfaces and a road project south of Goddard – are on the watchlist.

If the county were to pay for those three projects through the cash reserve for 2016, the reserve would still have $847,400 for other road and bridge projects.

Spears won’t say what would be done with that potential funding until the size of the cash reserve is approved in the final budget.

“(Commissioners) are figuring out the number and, when they do, I’ll come up with the projects,” Spears said.

Commissioner Jim Howell said multiple projects on the watchlist are worthy of funding for 2016.

“It is a core function of our government to take care of what we have,” he said.

‘Couple of alternatives’

Unruh has suggested cutting the reserve to $2 million to help prevent cuts in economic development, public health and cultural and recreational spending, which included smaller-than-originally-planned support for Exploration Place and the Sedgwick County Zoo.

Those cuts were widely unpopular at a public hearing on the budget last week. They also inspired groups opposed to the cuts to put up billboards and host an Old Town rally.

Unruh said the county can afford to delay some road projects because it already heavily invests in infrastructure.

“The $2 million I suggest is on top of a $40 million project at I-235 and Kellogg and on top of $15 million worth of roads,” he said at the public hearing.

Unruh said this week that he is also pushing for the county to issue bonds for half of the reserve projects to prevent cuts to infrastructure and other parts of the budget.

“I’m trying to offer a couple of alternatives,” he said.

The majority of county commissioners say they don’t want to add debt to pay for road and bridge projects.

“To use bonding for something that’s routine doesn’t make sense,” Howell said.

He also said the $3.29 million reserve is smaller than the $4 million in projects the county normally pays for with bonds.

Ranzau said he wants to maintain the quality of service with roads and bridges out in the county.

“We need to think long term about those sort of things before we decide to just willy-nilly start cutting an important thing like the roads and bridges,” he said.

Anything possible

Six bridge projects, two road projects and partial funding for miscellaneous drainage projects are on the county’s infrastructure watchlist.

Three of those projects were on the initial $4 million list of projects normally funded by bonds.

One involves the bridge deck, or roadway, on MacArthur Road over the Arkansas River. The project would cost the county $1 million.

Although the bridge gets good structural grades, Spears said, the road needs to be fixed to prevent damage to the bridge’s substructure.

“We had to put a steel plate over a hole last week because we couldn’t repair it,” he said. “You either spend $1 million now to fix the deck or, if you don’t do it, you’re going to spend $5 million to replace the whole bridge at a later date.”

The other two projects are a $300,000 bridge redeck north of Colwich and a $1.1 million road reconstruction south of Goddard.

Most of the 27 specific projects in the budget or on the watchlist are in southern or western Sedgwick County.

There is money in the cash reserve to pay for some projects currently on the watchlist. But Spears repeated that the spending plans could change.

Projects already budgeted could be delayed or shifted to the reserve fund. Projects not currently funded for 2016 could also be funded inside or outside of the reserve or delayed altogether.

“Any of this can change,” Spears said. “(The recommended budget) is just a book and numbers. Any project on here can be taken off.”

“Nothing is in concrete,” he said.

Reach Daniel Salazar at 316-269-6791 or dsalazar@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @imdanielsalazar.

How to be heard on budget

▪ A second public hearing on the budget is set for 6 p.m. Thursday on the third floor of the Sedgwick County Courthouse, 525 N. Main, in downtown Wichita.

▪ Look at the recommended budget and access the online budget hearing until Aug. 12 at www.sedgwickcounty.org/finance/2016budget.asp.

Proposed 2016 spending on roads, bridges

▪ $58.3 million total for road and bridge projects

▪ $39 million in state and federal money for the interchange project at I-235 and Kellogg

▪ $19 million in cash-funded road and bridge projects

Breakdown of cash projects

▪ $9.25 million for preventive road maintenance.

▪ $3.29 million for the county’s proposed cash reserve for unidentified projects

▪ $1.25 million to replace up to five miles of roads around the county

▪ $1.2 million for bridge on 135th Street West between 21st Street North and 29th Street South

▪ $867,698 for Phase I of interchange at I-235 and Kellogg

▪ $803,919 for bridge on Pawnee between 127th Street East and 143rd Street East

▪ $803,919 for bridge on Pawnee between 143rd Street East and 159th Street East

▪ $550,000 for traffic control maintenance

▪ $400,000 for bridge on Clifton between 55th Street South and 63rd Street South

▪ $200,000 for utility relocation

▪ $200,000 for bridge on Hydraulic between 111th Street South and 119th Street South

▪ $120,000 for contract for design of bridges eligible for federal funding

▪ $100,000 for special bridge inspection and engineering services

▪ $100,000 for bridge on 71st Street South between Webb and Greenwich

▪ $50,000 for bridge on 143rd Street East between Harry and Pawnee

Source: 2016 Sedgwick County recommended budget

Potential projects

These projects initially were included on a list to be paid for with $4 million in bonds. But a majority of commissioners want instead to create a cash reserve fund. The projects to be paid from the cash fund are still to be decided.

▪ $1.25 million for road replacement program

▪ $1.1 million for road work on 183rd Street West between 23rd and 39th streets south (south of Goddard)

▪ $1 million bridge deck on MacArthur Road over the Arkansas River (north of Oaklawn)

Source: Public Safety director David Spears, county spokeswoman Brittany Clampitt

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