CHANUTE — Mike King’s son traded a pickup truck that got about eight miles per gallon for a foreign-made hybrid car that averages 50 mpg of fuel.
Therein, said King, secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation, lies advantage for the motorist, but a funding problem for highway construction and maintenance in the state.
About 50 percent of KDOT’s funding comes from a 24-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline.
“As efficiency of cars and trucks improves, our funding goes down,” King told a handful of public officials from towns along U.S. 169 during a Wednesday morning meeting in Chanute.
Kansas also gets a portion of an 18-cent federal tax on motor fuels. Its only other tax-supported source of revenue is sales tax, which was eroded this year through legislative action.
By law, the fuel tax has to fund improvement and preservation of highways, but the sales tax is fair game, King said.
Legislators understand transportation is important to the state’s economic well-being, he said, but it isn’t a sacred cow. KDOT’s portion of the state’s overall budget of $14 billion is a “pretty small piece of the pie” compared to K-12 and higher education, which didn’t escape funding reductions. KDOT budgeted expenditures of about $1.8 billion this year.
Meanwhile, King took advantage of depressed interest rates and saved $38 million by refinancing a $150 million bond at 1.5 percent, a third of its original 4.5 percent rate. Also, when figuring the current fiscal year’s budget, King anticipated 3.5 percent inflation and reaped a benefit when it came in at next to zero.
Two bonds will be refinanced in the fall, with the anticipation of more savings in interest costs.
Altogether, KDOT’s debt is $1.7 billion, with debt service being 12 percent of its budget.
“My preference is to pay as we go and not borrow so much,” King said
He also noted that if inflation were to become more of an economic player, it would be good for KDOT. The department’s projects would cost more, but King thinks income from tax revenue increases, both fuel and sales, would be more than an offset.
King isn’t a newcomer to the world of transportation.
He earned a degree in construction management from John Brown University and was a third-generation contractor in his family before being appointed secretary of transportation by Gov. Sam Brownback.
“The only jobs I’ve ever had have been in transportation,” he said.
REPRESENTATIVES of Miami County, Cherryvale, Chanute and Iola Administrator Carl Slaugh, all living in the U.S. 169 corridor, attended the meeting.
Miami’s Janet McRae said further improvements in Miami County would seem in order, with “70 percent of the traffic going into the metropolitan (Kansas City) area on U.S. 169, and increased truck traffic.”
U.S. 169 as a four-lane ends south of Osawatomie, nearly 10 miles from the south boundary of Miami County.
Additional four-lane road would be an advantage in safety and handling traffic flow, agreed Lindsey Douglas, KDOT chief of government and external affairs, but said it wasn’t likely anytime soon. Rather, she suggested lobbying for passing lanes, short stretches of four-lane road without medians.
Public officials in towns along U.S. 400, from Wichita to the southeast corner of the state, also wanted four-lane access, but backed down and were successful with passing lanes, said Wayne Gudmonson, district engineer.
Douglas encouraged U.S. 169 corridor proponents to “give us your input, let us known what you want and need.”
Slaugh made no proposals at the meeting. In a conversation with the Register later Wednesday he said he would be eager for any improvements that might surface for the highway in Allen County.
He noted U.S. 69 that runs from Kansas City south through Fort Scott and to Pittsburg had been the recipient of more improvements than U.S. 169, while carrying similar traffic loads.
“We have an awfully lot of truck traffic on U.S. 169,” he said, but acknowledged “there is just so much money available.”
A major KDOT project, due to start soon, will replace all four lanes of U.S. 54 from the east side of Iola to the east edge of LaHarpe, where it returns to two lanes. Also, many small sections of U.S. 169 have been replaced between Iola and Chanute, an upgrade to make its driving surface smoother and safer.
The third major 10-year statewide highway improvement program began in 2010, with expectation of $8 billion in expenditures during its life. Of the total, $1.6 billion was set aside for major improvement projects. Half the program’s funding is for preservation work.
In addition to highway work, KDOT provides funding for railroads, rail trails, mass transit and airports. Cities and counties also depend on KDOT with local projects, often bridges that would go untouched without an infusion of state money.
THE U.S. 169 group has not organized itself to any great extent and meets only sporadically.
King said improvements to the highway might be more likely if members were more vocal.
“Come to Topeka as a group and spend half a day with us,” he said. “Tell us what’s going on and what you need.”
He mentioned a group from Rooks County — north of Hays where highways 183 and 24 intersect — that has mastered lobbying efforts.
They come in force, are well-prepared and “bring the best cookies you’ve ever eaten,” King said.
While the county is sparsely populated, when KDOT managers sit down to decide projects and Rooks County comes up, “we remember where it is,” he said.
“It’s important to me to know how you’re doing,” King continued, noting he is a member of Gov. Brownback’s Economic Growth Team and that local information is essential to statewide planning.