Cuts in highway funding may be an acceptable short-term solution to balance the state budget, but it could have long-term consequences if the economy doesn't rebound.
As a young lieutenant colonel in 1919, Dwight D. Eisenhower observed a military mobilization test in which a convoy of men and vehicles traveled 3,250 miles from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco.
After seeing how a substandard highway system hampered that effort and observing during World War II the efficiency of the German autobahn system, President Eisenhower, in 1956, signed the Federal Aid to Highways bill that created the interstate highway system. His goal was to put a federal priority on highways to insure national security and support interstate commerce.
Eisenhower's goals come to mind now because of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' plan to make deep cuts in state highway funding to help balance her proposed Fiscal 2004 budget. Although cities and counties will continue to get highway maintenance funds and progress will continue on some state enhancement projects, it appears that the governor's cuts will set back the schedule on several roads, including the new section of U.S. Highway 59 from Ottawa to Lawrence, and delay indefinitely any progress on the South Lawrence Trafficway.
The governor dipped into highway funding to allow her to balance the budget without proposing tax increases. It now is up to Kansans, and specifically state legislators, to evaluate the governor's budget proposal and decide whether it is in the best interests of Kansas.
Putting some highway projects on hold for a year or even two probably won't seriously injure the state, but longer delays could have a negative impact on the state's economic recovery. With only limited air and rail service within the state, Kansas depends on good highways for commerce and industry as well as personal travel.
But if the choice, during these lean economic times, comes down to spending money on highways or spending money on education, what is the right priority? Kansans often point to the poor condition of Missouri highways with dismay. During the campaign, Gov. Sebelius even was forced to apologize for remarks she made about her fear when driving in Missouri.
Yet, over the last several years, figures gathered in the Kansas City metropolitan area show Missouri has gained on Kansas in terms of spending for K-12 education, according to a Kansas University education professor who spoke at a school finance forum last week.
What's the right priority? Certainly, a strong highway system helps drive the state's economy, but so does the availability of a strong, well-educated work force. Maybe the answer is that Kansas should try to do a better job than Missouri on both counts, but it's unlikely to be able to do that without some kind of increased tax revenue.
Delaying highway projects to maintain the quality of K-12 and higher education in Kansas may be an acceptable tradeoff in the short term, but such an approach requires caution. As state universities have learned through hard experience with multi-year funding promises from the Legislature, promises to "get back to that later" too often get stretched out indefinitely or forgotten altogether. The state can't afford to let that happen to the highway system that is so important to its residents and businesses.