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Archive for Thursday, January 7, 1999

CONSERVATIVE ROUTE

January 7, 1999

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The transportation plan proposed Wednesday by Gov. Bill Graves isn't a luxury accommodation.

The new state transportation program presented by Gov. Bill Graves is the largest such package ever proposed in the state -- but many Kansans may believe it isn't big enough.

Graves decided not to expend any of the political capital given to him by voters who re-elected him governor in November by a record margin. Rather than take a bold approach to funding highways and other transportation projects in the state, he has put together a moderate package that is significantly lower than the one proposed by his Transportation 2000 task force.

Instead of raising fuel taxes or vehicle registration fees, the governor has chosen to raise funds for the transportation plan by authorizing $1.8 billion in additional bonds and diverting 10 percent of the state's sales tax receipts to the Kansas Department of Transportation. That same percentage of the sales tax also was diverted to pay for the 1989 highway plan, but the amount was lowered to 7.6 percent in 1992 because a sales tax increase would have provided a windfall for KDOT.

The plan would pump an additional $302 million a year into transportation projects. The breakdown on the package calls for holding the line on highway maintenance expenditures and adding about $100 million a year for major modification and priority bridge projects. "System enhancements" would get $125 million a year, compared with $105 million in the 1989 highway plan.

The relatively small increase in system enhancements money may draw the attention of some legislators. That money goes to special projects, like a South Lawrence Trafficway or a U.S. Highway 59 expansion. Those are the projects that individual legislators are fighting for and they may believe the funding won't be enough to include their pet "enhancement." There's no way to know for sure. Although there is speculation that KDOT may circulate a list of its priority highway projects, neither the governor nor the Transportation 2000 group wants to assign dollars to specific projects that could either win or lose votes for the plan.

The governor's plan is significantly more conservative than the proposal that came from his Transportation 2000 task force. The T-2000 group proposed spending $1.552 billion a year, compared with the governor's $1.335 billion, an annual difference of about $217 million. The governor thought Kansans would be unwilling to take the steps necessary to fund that additional amount, which would include a 1/4-cent increase in the state sales tax, a 5-cent-per-gallon increase in the fuel tax and a 20 percent increase in vehicle registration fees.

Perhaps the highway plan that will come out of the Legislature lies somewhere between the governor's proposal and the more-ambitious T-2000 plan. Graves certainly has left legislators plenty of room to maneuver if they choose to raise the total expenditures and take the political heat for whatever tax increases are required to fund that total.

Kansans who hoped Graves would be emboldened by his election mandate to set a more dynamic course for the state may be disappointed by his transportation plan. Perhaps he has taken a more conservative tack on highways to save money in his budget for some significant salary increases for state university faculty members.

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