Construction of a new U.S. 59 Highway south of Lawrence remains safe in the budget world of the Kansas Department of Transportation, but financial concerns are putting the brakes on another major project nearby.
Deb Miller, the state’s transportation secretary, announced Thursday that the department would postpone its planned $28.8 million interchange at Kansas Highway 7 and Johnson Drive/55th Street in Shawnee.
The problem: Miller and her colleagues can’t be sure the federal government will send KDOT the millions of dollars it needs to keep future projects in the pipeline.
While Congress agreed earlier this month to pump $7 billion into the federal Highway Trust Fund — the program that states use to finance major transportation projects — lawmakers have yet to come up with a financing plan for next year.
“Congress fixed the 2009 budget shortfall and that will help with the remainder of this fiscal year,” Miller said, in a statement. “But we need for them to fix the 2010 problem before we can proceed with the K-7 project.”
That’s because some of next year’s anticipated money — $261 million, accounting for about 30 percent of KDOT’s own budget — would be used to finance the bulk of the K-7 project, and KDOT isn’t in the mood to start a project it may not be able to finish.
KDOT had planned to open bids from contractors next month, but that step has been put off indefinitely.
Miller wants Congress to refinance the trust fund, so that the K-7 project — and others in the pipeline — won’t grind to a halt or miss out on what has been an economical environment for hiring construction crews.
Since January, the average cost for KDOT contracts has come in 6.l6 percent below estimates.
“Because of the down economy, contractors have been submitting lower bids in order to get work,” Miller said. “We’d like to proceed quickly to take advantage of those competitive bids.”
U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., couldn’t agree more. The Republican from Goddard, a member of the House Appriopriations Committee, said that investing in infrastructure would be one of the best ways to get the economy going again.
“Congress is going to do the right thing about making sure that the trust fund has ample resources,” Tiahrt said Thursday, after a luncheon meeting organized by the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. “I think we will see funding for these projects continue, (but) the time in which that money will be available is still in question.”
Steve Swartz, a KDOT spokesman, said that ongoing construction of U.S. 59 between Lawrence and Ottawa remained on track, and would not be in jeopardy regardless of what Congress did or did not decide on the highway trust fund.