Highway funds will dwindle, projects to be limited, unless transportation funding improves

Few projects will be completed across state in next few years

The Kansas Department of Transportation is planning for 9.6 million in 2011 and 0.5 million in 2012 for surfacing of the new U.S. Highway 59 already under construction, from Lawrence to the Douglas/Franklin County line. It’s one of the few dozen projects KDOT can actually afford.

The federal stimulus program may be injecting $348 million into state highway projects, but don’t expect a long list of new work in coming years, the state’s top transportation official warned Thursday.

Deb Miller, secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation, said her department would be able to afford only a few dozen projects — including completion of a new U.S. Highway 59 south of Lawrence — during the next three years, given budget constraints.

And if Congress and the Kansas Legislature can’t come up with new or renewed transportation programs soon, even those projects could be in jeopardy.

“This is what keeps me up at night,” Miller said. “The funding situation could fall apart.”

Thursday’s warning likely won’t be the last from KDOT and its supporters, as some pivotal deadlines approach:

• Authorization for the federal program expires Sept. 30. If the program were allowed to expire, KDOT would expect to receive $285 million less than the $357 million the department received during the past fiscal year, a shortfall Miller said would require deep cuts into projects already in the works.

• The upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature likely will include discussions of a new state highway program, to follow up on the 10-year Comprehensive Transportation Program that expired June 30. The most recent program’s financed projects included the start of the U.S. 59 realignment.

For a department that already saw its State Highway Fund lose $106 million because of legislative adjustments, then see its budget trimmed by another $55 million since May, the view looking forward to new and anticipated projects appears cloudy.

Miller outlined a plan that calls for spending $336 million on projects this year, another $312 million in 2011 and $270 million in 2012 — or less than half the annual spending during each of the Comprehensive Transportation Program’s past 10 years.

“The truth is, that level of funding simply doesn’t meet the needs of our system and, if fiscal conditions continue to worsen, our short list of projects could get even shorter,” said Miller, who noted that the Governor’s Transportation Task Force figures that the state needs to spend $415 million a year just to maintain the system in place now.

With that in mind, KDOT said Thursday that this year’s spending would focus on maintenance and other work that concentrates on preserving the existing system. About 300 maintenance projects — from painting bridges to resurfacing roads and the like — will be financed, although KDOT has not identified which of those projects will be accomplished.

Also Thursday, KDOT identified some specific projects slated for financing, including:

• $19.6 million in 2011 and $20.5 million in 2012 for surfacing of the new U.S. 59 highway already under construction, from Lawrence to the Douglas/Franklin County line. The first portion would be concrete, and run from the county line to North 650 Road; the second section would be asphalt, and go north from the interchange at North 650 Road to the existing four-lane section of U.S. 59, just south of Lawrence.

• $800,000 to replace a drainage bridge along U.S. 59, just south of North 900 Road. The bridge would be replaced after the new U.S. 59 is open, thereby reducing delays for traffic.

• $1.4 million in 2010 to replace the Mud Creek Bridge along U.S. Highway 24-40, about 2.5 miles east of U.S. 59 north of Lawrence.

Also set for financing is “initial planning” for construction of a new interchange at Bob Billings Parkway and the South Lawrence Trafficway in Lawrence. The interchange is one of five such projects chosen to join a list of 60 other projects already in the department’s “development pipeline.”

Miller cautioned that the department did not have money to finance construction of the interchange, only to plan for its eventual construction should money become available.