April 28, 2015

Kansas Department of Transportation officials seem to be downplaying highway concerns voiced last week by a nonpartisan think tank, but KDOT’s own figures paint a troubling picture of the impact of “sweeping” highway funds into the general fund to cover other state expenses.

Since Gov. Sam Brownback took office in 2011, more than $1.3 billion has been transferred out of the highway fund into the general fund. About $550 million of that was used to pay for transportation-related expenses, such as the Kansas Highway Patrol, but more than half has gone to cover other state obligations. In January, lawmakers approved taking $103 million from the fund to help fill a budget gap for the current fiscal year.

The “sweeping” of funds from KDOT likely isn’t over. Brownback has proposed taking another $139 million from the state highway fund for each of the next two fiscal years in order to balance the budget. Given the state’s current financial issues, it seems that total could go even higher.

Although KDOT officials have continued to say that the sweep of funds won’t hamper projects that are part of the state’s 10-year T-Works program, a report issued last week by the Kansas Center for Economic Growth raised concerns about delays not only in T-Works projects but in routine maintenance. “This shell game is unsustainable and not without costs,” said the report, pointing to the fact that delayed maintenance will cost the state more in the long run and that any money KDOT has to borrow to complete projects must be repaid with interest.

KDOT normally sets aside about $445 million a year for “preservation” projects to maintain roads in a manner that prevents costlier major repairs in the future, according to a spokesman. Because of the money that has been diverted from its budget, KDOT has allocated just $177 million for such work next year.

KDOT officials say it’s only a delay and the work will get done, but not delaying maintenance until it becomes more urgent and expensive is the point of preservation projects. And given recent trends, who’s to say money will be available for those projects in a year or two?

Robbing the state transportation department is a particularly questionable strategy given the Brownback administration’s emphasis on creating jobs and attracting new business to Kansas — a goal often cited to justify state income-tax cuts. Do officials think businesses wanting to locate or expand in Kansas won’t notice the state’s declining commitment to its transportation infrastructure? Do they not understand what a project like completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway — and the roads and bridges leading into the SLT — means to the economic development prospects for a community?

So far, the state has gotten away with using the so-called “Bank of KDOT” to cover non-transportation expenses, but, over the long haul, this is not a winning strategy for the state’s motorists or its economic vitality.

Read more from the Lawrence Journal World here.