Gov. Laura Kelly on Wednesday promoted her administration’s long-term transportation plan as a tool for restoring the health of Kansas highways and creating communities where talented young people want to live.
She joined Kansas Department of Transportation Secretary Julie Lorenz in a news conference at the Capitol, where they outlined the way funding will be dispersed and renewed their commitment to closing the “bank of KDOT.”
The governor also acknowledged political backlash over a failed vote on the abortion amendment could complicate efforts to advance the transportation plan through the Legislature, despite bipartisan support.
The state for three decades has dedicated funding for transportation needs in 10-year increments, with all of the projects identified from the start. The most recent plan, T-Works, expired with numerous unfinished projects that fell casualty to $2 billion worth of sweeps from the highway fund.
KDOT’s proposal for a new plan, which it calls Forward, would finish some of the T-Works projects, prioritize highway preservation efforts, support broadband initiatives, increase local fund-matching opportunities, and maintain a promise to spend at least $8 million in each of the state’s 105 counties.
New projects would be selected every two years instead of all at once, a process aimed at keeping communities engaged throughout the decade and remaining flexible for unforeseen needs.
Kelly said infrastructure investments will improve quality of life in communities across the state. She said 41% of the state’s population, “including me,” was born outside Kansas.
"Making Kansas a place people want to move to and a place they don't want to leave is critical for our long-term success,“ Kelly said.
Lawmakers, including Republicans who led a task force that helped develop the new transportation plan, expressed interest in supporting Forward early in the session.
Two weeks ago, the governor waded into debate over a proposed constitutional amendment, which subsequently failed to win the two-thirds majority support it needed in the House. Some Republicans appear poised to retaliate by blocking the governor’s priorities.
“That’s just the way it works around here,” Kelly said. “We’ll work through those issues.”
Lorenz said the transportation bill proposed by KDOT sets parameters to ensure fair, collaborative and practical decisions. Kansas highways are declining in health and need attention, she said.
"Kansans are ready to build a better transportation system for themselves and for future generations," Lorenz said. “With Forward, we can provide them with the shovel to get that work done, and we need to do that now."
Andrew Wiens, vice president of government relations for the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he liked the agency’s innovative idea for selecting new projects on a two-year cycle.
He said the South Central Kansas Transportation Coalition is working to identify priority projects in Wichita, Newton, Derby and other communities. A solid infrastructure system helps to move freight, reduce commute times and get kids to and from school, he said.
"From a private sector perspective, it helps to have flexibility, and 10 years is a long time,“ Wiens said. ”We think it's important to have a long-term plan, but you want to be able to have the agility to move and change and be flexible based on the changing economic climate."
Michael White, executive director of the Kansas Contractors Association, said contractors aren’t concerned with how new highway projects are selected. They just want to protect funding in the program.
He said the decision to leave more money in the highway fund last year, part of the governor’s effort to reduce and eventually end transfers by the end of her four-year term, had an immediate impact.
"That's going to bring more work, and my contractors are bringing more people back to the state,“ White said. ”They had to go out of state to find work for the last seven or eight years."