Budget woes threaten highway program, group warns

? Since Gov. Sam Brownback took office in 2011, the Kansas Legislature has taken hundreds of millions of dollars out of the State Highway Fund to make up for revenue shortfalls and pay for general government expenses, including K-12 education.

Now, a nonpartisan think tank is saying those transfers of highway money threaten parts of the state’s 10-year comprehensive highway program known as T-Works.

“This shell game is unsustainable and not without costs — the money we borrow must be repaid with interest, and the projects we are delaying indefinitely will be costlier to address as maintenance issues go unaddressed year after year,” the Kansas Center for Economic Growth said in a report released Thursday.

But Kansas Department of Transportation officials said they are confident that all of the projects in the T-Works program will be completed, although there may be delays in some highway “preservation” projects that are meant to prevent the need for costlier major repairs in future years.

KDOT spokesman Steve Swartz said Thursday that the agency typically sets aside about $445 million each year for preservation projects. But because of recent “sweeps” out of the highway fund to shore up the general fund, that will be reduced next year to just $177 million.

But Kent Olson, KDOT’s director of fiscal and asset management, said later that the agency is only delaying scheduled preservation projects.

“Some may be moved out to the later years of T-Works,” Olson said, adding that the statewide highway system will continue to exceed the agency’s benchmarks for road and bridge safety.

The report from the Center for Economic Growth painted a more pessimistic picture.

“While we’ve maintained a commitment to the scheduled expansion plans — the projects that result in new bridges, roads, etc. — we have fallen behind on taking care of the roads and bridges that lead to the new expansion projects,” the report said.

The think tank describes itself as a, “nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts research and analysis to promote balanced state policies that help ensure all Kansans prosper.” The group is headed by Annie McKay, a former research analyst with Kansas University’s Institute for Educational Research and Public Service and the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.

Duane Goossen, a former budget director under Republican Gov. Bill Graves and Democratic Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson, is a senior fellow for the center.

The T-Works program was adopted in 2010. It originally called for a 10-year program that included major roadway expansions, including some designed to spur economic development in parts of the state; road and bridge maintenance; preservation programs; and a small amount reserved for other modes of transportation such as urban mass transit and local airport improvements.

Originally estimated to cost about $8 billion, the program is funded with a combination of motor fuel taxes, sales taxes and vehicle registration fees.

Since the program’s enactment, state legislators have routinely dipped into that fund to make up for shortfalls in general state revenues, beginning with the Great Recession in 2008-2010, and continuing through more recent years when revenues fell even more sharply after Gov. Brownback and the Republican-controlled Legislature enacted sweeping tax cuts after the recession.

Since 2011, according to information from KDOT, more than $1.3 billion has been transferred out of the highway fund into the state general fund. Of that, about $550 million has been for routine transportation-related expenses, including Kansas Highway Patrol funding, but the remainder has been to shore up the state general fund to make up for shortfalls in other sources of revenue.

In January, lawmakers approved sweeping $103 million out of the fund to help fill a projected $280 million budget gap for the current fiscal year. And for each of the next two fiscal years, Gov. Brownback has proposed sweeping another $139 million.