Whatever our neighbors in Oklahoma and Missouri once bragged about, Kansans could always think, “Yes, but our roads are so much better.”
That’s no longer the case. Many areas of Kansas have state highways in need of repair or modernization. Anyone who travels the state has a two-lane highway they would rather avoid because it’s too narrow, bumpy or is without a safe place to pull over.
The Kansas Department of Transportation needs $380 million annually for preservation work on state roads, according to the director of the Kansas Contractors Association, but hasn’t received that much in years because the Legislature continually raids KDOT’s budget to fund other government needs labeled more pressing. Former Gov. Sam Brownback’s failed tax-cut policies helped fuel the revenue problem.
But roads are like homes: Let upkeep slide for too long and it creates big problems.
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So it’s time for lawmakers to begin a U-turn for state transportation funding. A slow, deliberate U-turn that will require much thought and collaboration.
Taking money from KDOT has become as much of a tradition in state government as the State of the State speech. When critical funding is needed, take from transportation without much guilt and hope for a better outlook next year.
Next year comes and goes often. About $3.3 billion has been taken from KDOT over 20 years, and 23 projects statewide remain delayed at a projected cost of $525 million.
In 2010, the Legislature created T-Works, the Department of Transportation’s 10-year, $8 billion framework. Its “$8 million promise” was that all 105 Kansas counties would receive at last $8 million in improvements before 2020 – only Chautauqua, Greeley and Stanton counties are short, according to the T-Works website.
The Senate took the first step in replacing T-Works last week, passing legislation that creates a transportation task force. Its charge would be to identify needed road projects and determine new KDOT funding priorities. The bill is now in the House.
Gov. Jeff Colyer identified a similar task force in his speech to legislators last week. He should make sure the task force bill reaches his desk for signature.
Lawmakers know replenishing KDOT’s budget can’t come quickly. All sides agree it’s a long-term wish, what with a school-funding formula and other pressing needs also carrying large price tags.
But after years of neglect and putting off critical projects, a transportation task force should find another long-term, T-Works-type plan that emphasizes funding solutions and ways to ensure KDOT is fully funded.
There are options. One is in the form of using bonds, though borrowing to pay for roadwork doesn’t make sense to many. A gas tax – which would send KDOT revenue that can’t be taken away by lawmakers – is another possibility.
Yes, it’s a tax. Not popular among lawmakers or the state’s residents.
Whatever the idea, it has come time for legislators to take their most serious look at fixing a broken way of funding the Department of Transportation. Kansas roads and bridges have been put off long enough. We should be able to take pride again in Kansas highways.