High-tech, futuristic transportation scenarios with drones, smart roads and cellular connectivity in Kansas were front and center Thursday at the listening tour in Hays of Kansas Department of Transportation Secretary Julie Lorenz.
That was the presentation from Lorenz, who characterized the four-hour session as a visioning opportunity for Kansans to imagine the state’s future transportation needs.
One of eight such meetings around the state the last couple of weeks, Lorenz advised the Hays audience prior to break-out sessions, “Don’t be afraid to think really big about the future.” Saying KDOT is “open for business,” she said Gov. Laura Kelly has restarted highway planning and work, which was stalled by the previous administration’s borrowing over the years of more than $2 billion in KDOT funding for the state’s general fund.
But comments from the audience of about 100 people in the Memorial Union’s Black and Gold Room on the campus of Fort Hays State University were less about high-tech broadband access and connectivity and more about the need for road shoulders, re-engineering dangerous curves and adding warning lights at intersections of narrow, heavily traveled state highways.
“I could care less about dropped calls,” said Fred Washburn, who admitted he came to the session out of concern for safety on narrow K-23 highway in Sheridan County near Hoxie, where he is a city superintendent.
“What we’re losing are people,” Washburn said during a break-out session, commenting on accidents over that section of highway. “I’m one of the guys that dig you out, and it’s not fun, it’s not pretty.”
Washburn wasn’t the only one less concerned about imagining a technology-driven future.
FHSU student Thomas Nelson, a Hutchinson senior studying international business and economics, made the case to “improve what we have” when it comes to K-14 highway from Ellsworth to Interstate 70, a narrow, two-lane rollercoaster through the Smoky Hills. Making the case for at least adding shoulders, Nelson said, “it would have just as much impact as building something fancy.”
Another commenter in the breakout session also argued for help with a stretch of highway through Cheyenne County near St. Francis.
“It’s a 24-foot road with no shoulders,” said the man. “Just some shoulder improvements on these two lanes would be an incredible improvement.”
Ross Carder, Sheridan County road supervisor, cited K-23 from Selden to Hoxie to Interstate 70, which gets a lot of big-truck traffic.
“Since I’ve been fire chief, I’ve been fire chief for 31 years, I’ve been to 22 fatality accidents on that stretch of highway. The last one was in February,” Carder said, citing a woman whose car collided with a wide-load transporter. “My concern is the number of deaths that have happened, and that I have had to remove, two, three, four bodies at a time, on that stretch of highway. That needs to be a priority.”
With Kelly saying she’s committed to shuttering “the Bank of KDOT,” the state highway agency is embarking on 10-year and 25-year long-range plans, Lorenz said. Kelly has said she hopes to wean the state’s general fund from KDOT money by 2023, with the hope KDOT can begin issuing new bonds for major projects as soon as 2022.
Right now, KDOT gets its funding from gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees, both of which are protected and can’t be tapped for other purposes, and from sales tax. Kansas legislators have routinely tapped the sales tax money, about $512 million a year, for the general fund.
With Kelly’s commitment to transportation, Lorenz said Thursday, KDOT has restarted its unfinished T-Works plan, a 10-year plan with some $15 billion in projects identified, but which stalled for lack of funding in 2015 and 2016 during the Brownback administration. Near-term, with $435 million in projects around the state to finish, T-Works has been restarted, she said, noting KDOT will honor its commitment to the program.
Lorenz said the state should be spending about $500 million a year alone just on preserving the roads and bridges it has, a transportation system the state has valued as a $30 billion asset, she said.
“We’re going to have a plan that makes sense and works together, and it starts with a vision,” Lorenz said.
Under Kelly, besides restarting T-Works, rail facilities have been added, air ambulance services have been expanded and KDOT is busy acquiring right of way to begin highway projects on the drawing board.
More than $150 million in cost-share grants are available to cities and counties for bridge improvement, enhanced safety and other transportation needs.
Beyond that, though, transportation plays a key role in the state’s economic future, Lorenz indicated, citing among other things its importance in providing access to health care and education.
“We’re really flipping the switch on the way we think about economic development and vitality, particularly in the rural areas,” Lorenz said, noting Kansas has a natural advantage of being in the center of the country and just two days' drive from 85 percent of the U.S. population. And because it’s a net exporter, it can drive down the cost of transportation on goods sold nationally and globally. Likewise, Kansas is ideal for tele-commuters living here and working from businesses on the coasts, in Denver or in other cities.
“Transportation is critical to our economy,” she said. “Transportation is the connecting fiber for our state. We’re not doing it just for roads and bridges, we’re making investments for our families, for our kids, so that not just we want to live in Kansas, our kids want to live here. Kansas can be our forever home.”
Lorenz said she will make a second tour through the state in the fall to report and discuss KDOT's long-range plans derived from the eight public listening sessions.