Kansas questions highway funding

News The Kansas City Star August 05, 2005
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When Congress approved the federal highway bill, it looked like a windfall for Kansas – $305 million in new federal money for the state’s highways over the next five years.

Politicians across the nation were quick to praise the enactment of the $286.5 national transportation package that was approved by Congress after more than two years of extensions.

However, as officials at the Kansas Department of Transportation have been analyzing the bill, concerns have surfaced, reports the Kansas City Star.

The average state increase in federal highway dollars was 30%, while the increase for Kansas was only 19.2%. Only five other states had a lower percentage increase, that being 19% each.

According to the Kansas City Star, Deb Miller, Kansas secretary of transportation, said recently that she is concerned there won’t be enough money to pay the federal share of the state’s ambitious $13.2 billion comprehensive transportation program that began in 1999.

“We’re still analyzing the legislation and we’ll know more in a week or so,” said Miller. “I wouldn’t say I’m worried, but I am uneasy at this point.”

In Washington, Kansas’ concerns were met with surprise and even some disdain, as both senators from the state, as well as the entire House delegation from Kansas, voted for the bill.

“Overall, we’re very pleased,” said Senator Pat Roberts after the bill was passed.

Kansas highway officials had not expected the increase to be that low compared with other states, reports the Star. Missouri’s increase is 30% by comparison.

According to the Star, Miller said states like Missouri, which has traditionally sent more federal gasoline taxes to the federal highway fund than it got back, banned together and lobbied Congress for a larger return. Consequently, Miller said, she believes Kansas was slated to receive a little less than the average increase. However, state highway officials expected more than a 19.2% increase.

Since the enactment of the state’s highway plan, it has been under attack from state lawmakers who found revenue shrinking dramatically during the recent recession and grabbed money from highway funds, reports the Star.

Critics of the plan to use even more highway money, reminded lawmakers last year that they had already taken more than $800 million from the plan to make up large deficits.

At that time, Miller told the Legislature that without more money, she would have to cut more than $550 million in projects from the highway plan, reports the Star. Lawmakers responded by passing a bill that authorized up to $150 million in bonds and an additional $60 million in bonds if the federal highway funding fell short of expectations.

According to the Star, Kansas’ transportation program is the largest public works effort in the state’s history. The program includes airport improvements, short-line rail work, public transit and more than 2,300 highway construction projects.

Washington officials said the new funding – even at only 19.2% – was no small feat in a time of increasing deficits and lowered taxes, reports the Star. Kansas could still receive more money when the highway funds are actually appropriated, mostly because U.S. Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas serves on the Senate Transportation Appropriation Subcommittee and U.S. Representative Todd Tiahrt, a Wichita Republican, serves on the equivalent subcommittee in the House.

According to the Star, appropriators have been known for adding funding for there home states, and Brownback has indicated that he will follow the trend.

“As a member of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, I will continue to fight for Kansas transportation projects,” Brownback recently said in a prepared statement. “Although Kansas saw a nearly 20% increase in transportation funding from last year, there are vital projects throughout the state that still need help. I hope to help as many communities as possible in the coming funding cycle.”

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