Editorial: Shifting highway funds

Lawmakers face a serious challenge in addressing the state’s continuing budget crisis.

It is easy to criticize Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal to slash highway spending by more than 80 percent in order to shore up the state’s ailing budget. Identifying a viable alternative is more difficult.

That’s the challenge facing lawmakers — and there are many — who aren’t fond of Brownback’s plan to sweep a billion dollars in sales tax revenue out of the state highway fund over the next two years. How do you close an estimated billion-dollar deficit in the state’s budget through the 2018 fiscal year without gutting highway funding?

During a Senate Ways and Means Committee meeting this week, Kansas Department of Transportation officials discussed the impact of the Brownback cuts.

Under the proposed cuts, only $28 million would be spent next year to resurface 235 miles of roadway, and only $16 million more would be spent on other kinds of preservation projects. By comparison, Kansas spent an average of $157 million a year resurfacing 1,436 miles of roadway from 2011 through 2015 under the T Works program approved in 2010. Since then, the state spent an average of $366 million a year on all types of preservation projects — resurfacing plus other maintenance.

Kansas Department of Transportation officials contend the state’s highways are in good shape overall and that the agency can maintain road conditions ate a high level even if the cuts are implemented. But the numbers have officials alarmed.

“It’s going to take us a long time to get back to where we would have been had the 2010 transportation plan been fully implemented,” Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, said. “It’s going to take us a number of years to be able to adequately fund the transportation plan as it passed in the 2010 session.”

Hensely expressed concern that needed road projects will be pushed back and that by the time funding is restored to adequate levels, the state will be too far behind to catch up.

As an alternative, the Kansas Contractors Association is part of a coalition known as Rise Up Kansas that has proposed, among other things, an 11 cent per gallon increase in fuel taxes.

At present, Kansas charges 24 cents per gallon in gas taxes. An 11 cent increase would move Kansas into the top 10. Outside of California, Kansas would be the most expensive place to buy gas in the West.

For those reasons, such a large increase is unlikely to pass the Legislature. What does seem reasonable is a more modest tax increase of perhaps 5 percent. Such an increase would provide significantly more revenue for the highway fund over the long term.

A modest gasoline tax hike in combination with a one-time sweep of revenue from the state highway fund might be the reasonable alternative lawmakers seek.