State officials consider new transportation plan as way to ease unemployment

? During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a number of public projects to get the United States working again.

Now, with the nation struggling to emerge from recession and the state’s unemployment rate staying above 6 percent, Kansas officials are eyeing a new transportation program to get the state on the road to recovery.

The idea has worked before.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that if we were to pass a new transportation program, you would see a lot of people who are put back to work,” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis. “There would be an economic stimulus effect.”

In 1989, Kansas implemented a 10-year highway program that invested in reconstruction and major modification of thousands of miles of roads. A second plan was passed in 1999, expanding its scope to rail and aviation.

“I think it helped mitigate previous recessions” in the 1990s and early 2000s, said Senate President Steve Morris.

Transportation Secretary Deb Miller said those efforts enhanced safety and expanded infrastructure with lasting economic benefits.

“But the fact is, it takes far less time for a highway system to deteriorate than it does to build it to the levels Kansans have come to expect,” Miller said. “By the time travelers start to notice a decline in the system, it will be very difficult to improve without spending massive amounts of money.”

In the past year transportation spending has been slashed by $257 million, which has policymakers concerned about the 10,000-mile system’s durability.

“We’ve had groups in the past that are not very happy about any tax being raised. But we still have the responsibility of having a balanced budget and we have a responsibility to take care of our highways,” said Morris, a Hugoton Republican. “We have to weigh those responsibilities with the views of our citizens.”

A new program emerged from a Senate committee Tuesday, an ambitious $8.2 billion plan for the next decade that’s financed with new taxes, fees and bonding authority for the state Department of Transportation. The focus will be on all modes of transportation, including mass transit and passenger rail service, as well as traffic flow improvements in urban areas.

Legislators will return April 28 to finish the 2010 session, with the state budget remaining to be completed. That’s no small task, especially with Kansas staring at a budget shortfall projected at $467 million. It could be larger after economists meet April 16 to revise tax collection estimates.

Gov. Mark Parkinson and a majority of legislators want tax increases to close that gap, but also say a portion of those increases would remain after three years to fund the transportation program. The Senate plan proposes using a 0.3 percent sales tax increase to raise $1.15 billion over seven years.

“It’s ambitious to try to adopt a highway plan this year because of the economic situation that we’re in. But the plan I outlined in the State of the State makes sense to me,” Parkinson said. “The Senate has confirmed that idea.”

Some of the new projects under way in Kansas resulted from federal stimulus dollars. Those projects were deemed “shovel-ready,” meaning the design and engineering work was complete and ready for crews to lay pavement or replace bridges.

“Those construction companies in our state, they need to know that we are still in business and we want to keep them in business in Kansas and provide those quality jobs,” Morris said.

The Federal Highway Administration calculates that for every $1 million in spending, 30 jobs are created. Beyond construction, those jobs would come from suppliers, gas stations and grocery stores that support the projects.

But Morris said the federal stimulus package fell short of what it could have been as a jobs program had more been dedicated to transportation projects.

“(States) ended up with $30 billion out of $800 billion — which, to me, that’s a pittance,” Morris said. “If (Congress) had taken half of that money, that would have provided a lot of quality jobs around the country and made a significant difference in the economy. But they chose not to do that.”