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Archive for Thursday, January 7, 1999

GRAVES ROLLS OUT TRANSIT PLAN

January 7, 1999

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— Gov. Graves' plan would spend $10.68 billion during the life of the eight-year highway proposal, an average of $1.335 billion per year.

Gov. Bill Graves unveiled on Wednesday his proposal for a new eight-year transportation improvement program, one that would increase state spending on highways and other forms of transportation by 53 percent a year above the plan completed in 1997.

The governor's plan is fundable out of existing resources and by issuing bonds, and won't require increasing motor fuel taxes or raising vehicle registration fees, he said.

Graves will deliver the plan, the largest highway improvement program in state history, to the Legislature when it convenes next week.

He told reporters and a large group of officials, contractors and lobbyists at a Statehouse news conference that the plan is needed because, "A solid, efficient transportation system is crucial to our future economic success in Kansas."

His plan would spend $10.68 billion during the life of the eight-year proposal, an average of $1.335 billion per year. That compares with $6.96 billion that the program initiated in 1989 cost, an average of $870 million a year.

To pay for it, Graves proposed diverting 10 percent of the state's revenue from its 4.9 percent sales tax to the State Highway Fund and issuing $1.8 billion worth of bonds.

Taking 10 percent of the sales tax revenue would generate about $69 million a year more for highways, or $554 million during the life of the plan.

Graves did not address individual projects in his announcement Wednesday.

The plan was developed in the wake of a report from the Transportation 2000 task force the governor appointed to assess state transportation needs.

The task force proposed a plan that would have required $4.3 billion in new revenues to fund over eight years, and Graves estimated that it would have required a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax, a 5-cent a gallon increase in fuel taxes and a 20 percent increase in vehicle registration fees to finance.

Graves' plan costs $217 million a year less than the Transportation 2000 plan.

"The governor recommended a more moderate program," said Gary Toebben, president of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce and a member of the transportation task force. "Although some people may have been disappointed by the conservative nature of his plan, I think it is a good starting point."

An important part of the governor's message, Toebben said, was that Graves thinks his program can be funded without a tax increase. The difference between the governor's and the task force's plans was in new constructions, he said.

"Essentially, the governor's recommendation doesn't include as many brand new highway projects," Toebben said. "In the end, I think, the transportation plan that passes will be somewhere between the governor's recommendations and the Transportation 2000's recommendations."

Some lawmakers say it will be difficult to get a plan approved after the Legislature convenes Monday. One difference in the political climate from 10 years ago is a larger number of conservatives, most of them elected in 1992 and 1994 on pledges to cut taxes and government spending.

"There's virtually no support for a big tax increase to fund highways," said conservative Rep. Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls.

Supporters of a large highway plan contend Kansans are willing to pay higher taxes -- particularly motor fuels taxes -- to finance road improvements. Some view such taxes as highway "user fees."

Other legislators, particularly Democrats, are worried that enacting a transportation program could put the pinch on other parts of the state budget. They cited juvenile justice and foster care for children as two items that could require a large increase in spending.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the push for a highway plan comes at "an inopportune time."

House Minority Leader Jim Garner, D-Coffeyville, said: "Probably, the waitresses and the guys working out at the factory like good roads. But they also like making sure their kids are going to good schools. They're also worried about what kinds of care their parents are getting as they get older."

Another issue is whether the Legislature should designate specific projects in any transportation bill. The last plan left decisions on which projects would be financed to the Department of Transportation.

House Speaker-designate Robin Jennison, R-Healy, wants projects designated. He and other supporters of the idea argue taxpayers should not get a bill without knowing what they will pay for.

"Do we trust the Department of Transportation?" Neufeld said. "The answer for a lot of us who've been around is no, not really."

But designating projects proved disastrous in 1987, when Gov. Mike Hayden called a special session of the Legislature to consider a highway plan. That session ended with no plan.

"What happens if you specify projects is that you pit legislator versus legislator," said Pat Hurley, lobbyist for Economic Lifelines, a coalition of groups pushing for a new transportation program. "If my project is on the list and yours is not, I know how you're going to vote."

-- Journal-World writer Felicia Haynes contributed information to this story.

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