Task force nearing consensus on framework of next Kansas transportation plan
photo by: Peter Hancock
TOPEKA – A legislative task force appeared to reach consensus Wednesday on a number of key elements that it believes should be part of the state’s next multiyear transportation plan, including increased funding for urban mass transit systems and restoration of state funding for city and county road projects.
But it remains to be seen whether the group can reach consensus on how to pay for the roughly 280 projects totaling an estimated $18 billion that communities across the state have identified as priorities.
That’s the question that will likely dominate discussion Thursday as the Joint Legislative Transportation Vision Task Force meets for the last time to finalize the recommendations it will deliver to the 2019 Legislature, which convenes in January.
“If the task force wants a new and improved project, they’re going to have to make some decisions — are you willing to put in the recommendations that it’s a gas tax, are you willing to put in that it’s a fee?” Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, co-chair of the task force, said in an interview after Wednesday’s meeting.
There was almost universal agreement Wednesday that one of the state’s first priorities in any new transportation plan is to complete the 21 projects that were not completed during the current T-Works program that expires this year.
Those projects, mostly in rural areas, were not completed because for the last few years, lawmakers swept hundreds of millions of dollars out of the state highway fund and used it to shore up the state general fund during years of budget shortfalls.
“The first step would be, stop sweeping the money that has been earmarked for transportation,” McGinn said.
photo by: Peter Hancock
Among the projects on the list is a proposal to widen Kansas Highway 10 in Douglas County, from the I-70 interchange to U.S. Highway 59, to a four-lane expressway at an estimated cost of about $205 million.
But neither the task force nor the Legislature will decide on specific projects. Those decisions will be left to the Kansas Department of Transportation, in consultation with the communities that will be impacted. The Legislature will only define the size of the program, how many years it will last, and where the money will come from to pay for various types of projects.
Among the funding options being discussed are existing revenues flowing into the highway fund from sales taxes and motor fuel taxes, as well as two other possible funding sources — new fees for electric and autonomous vehicles, and the use of tolls for any new roadways or major expansions, possibly including the K-10 project in Douglas County.
But task force members on Wednesday also expressed interest in providing more state aid to cities and counties to help them pay for local street and road projects.
Under current law, the state is supposed to transfer about $130 million a year into what’s known as the special city-county highway fund, which is then distributed to local governments. But that is another program the state has not funded for several years as lawmakers dealt with a series of revenue shortfalls.
Meanwhile, Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, a task force member who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said the next multiyear program also needs to increase investment in public transportation systems, especially in the urban areas of Kansas City and Wichita, where he said a cultural shift is taking place among younger adults moving to those areas.
“The mindset has kind of changed where they don’t particularly want a car. They want to use mass transit. They want to use Uber and Lyft,” Waymaster said. “And so if we’re going to have a generational change where you’re looking at an entire generation not wanting to own vehicles, who use mass transit and other means to get around, we’ve got to address that now.”
The task force also plans to discuss Thursday a possible recommendation to either do away with or greatly amend the so-called “property tax lid” that lawmakers imposed on local governments starting in 2017, which limits their ability to increase revenues from property taxes from one year to the next.
McGinn, who has opposed that lid from the beginning, said she thinks it needs to be part of the discussion about giving local governments more tools to fund their own projects, although Waymaster said he thinks it’s unlikely lawmakers would go along with that idea.