Tough time for a highway plan

With the state budget in such a mess, it can be argued that this either is the worst or the best time for the Legislature to launch another grand transportation plan — the worst because of the tax increases and spending it might involve, the best because of the jobs and infrastructure improvements it would bring.

If state legislators buy the compelling pro-plan argument, they must proceed with caution and foresight. Any new obligations created by another comprehensive transportation program should be accompanied by a funding strategy that doesn't rely on overburdening the state's debt or siphoning the state general fund.

A special House-Senate committee on transportation, which discussed options last week in Topeka, could settle on recommendations next month about the size and funding of a plan. Some advocates want a $10 billion price tag — scaled back from the $13 billion program that began in 1999 and expired earlier this year. Other options include a three- to five-year plan. A smaller effort might concentrate on maintaining what Kansas already has, augmenting the $375 million a year the state spends to repair existing roads. A new program could have money for airports and passenger rail as well as highways and bridges. Possible funding sources include higher fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees. The state gasoline tax, currently 24 cents a gallon, saw its most recent increase in 2003.

Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, recently said he could support phasing in a tax increase over several years to fund a new multiyear transportation plan. Morris told Kansas Public Radio that past plans have been "truly significant on the amount of infrastructure that we've added, the jobs that have been provided and the stimulus to the economy — very, very good reasons for passing a comprehensive transportation plan this year."

Others among the Legislature's GOP leadership also might view a tax increase for a transportation plan as a justifiable user fee.

But such a proposal faces the strong opposition of Americans for Prosperity-Kansas, which doubts the claims that transportation projects help the economy. Despite 20 years of comprehensive transportation plans, AFP state director Derrick Sontag recently told Associated Press, "We're not kicking Missouri's and Oklahoma's butts when it comes to economic development."

And like it or not, legislators can't separate their transportation planning from the rest of the state budget picture. They might not see a problem with hiking taxes for highways while slashing funding for schools and social services, but many voters would.

Though advocates are pushing hard, some state leaders likely might judge the revenue and budget problems as too daunting in 2010 to allow any talk of a transportation plan, putting a spotlight on whether Gov. Mark Parkinson makes one a priority.

To be sure, nobody wants to see Kansas' exemplary roads return to the haphazard condition of the years before the state's 1989 transportation plan. But the timing of a new program will be tough, testing state leaders' ability to plan down the road even as they cope with a fiscal emergency.