A new infrastructure tactic

With abortion and Medicaid and even unpasteurized milk under the legislative microscope, this week hearings start on yet another topic—maybe one of the better ideas that legislators have seen pop up in the last several decades.

It’s called “Forward,” and it is a dramatically new way to figure out how to improve transportation of people and goods across the state. That not only gets people to work on time, but makes it possible for manufacturers in Kansas to get their goods to market and make themselves and their businesses and cities more prosperous.

Sound like a good idea? Yes, but it’s also one that has taken Kansas government nearly 40 years to come up with. Hmmm…

Basic idea is that instead of pulling together local and state officials to plan for what might or might not be the needs for roads and bypasses a decade in the future, how about you first plan how to maintain and keep safe the thousands of miles of roads that we’ve already built? And, once those maintenance needs are met and financed, we look at projects that will make economic development activity achievable.

Well, that’s what the new transportation plan looks like. It took new Secretary of Transportation Julie Lorenz, to help come up with it, and a new governor Laura Kelly, to produce a budget that just might make it possible.

First item of business is to do the work that was promised more than a decade ago under former Gov. Sam Brownback, which sounded good of course, but which saw about $2 billion of money to perform that work evaporate as the state’s finances were ravaged by tax cuts that didn’t supercharge the state’s economy as Brownback had promised.

So, to keep government running, the state diverted money from roads to nearly everything that the state does for its citizens, ranging from education to social services to prisons to…well, just about everything but roads that it had promised Kansans.

The result? Those promised highway improvements didn’t get done, money for maintenance was siphoned off for general government operations and nobody is happy. The new plan includes finishing off those promised projects and devoting millions to preserving the highways we have that are steadily deteriorating.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Kelly will need to delay many of the tax cuts that all legislators want to tout as they seek re-election this year. She’s going to have to keep spending low so that those old projects get done to spark a new era in which maintenance is paid for from federal funds and from the motor fuel taxes we pay every time we fill up.

And, if the Legislature goes along with it in probably a year or two we won’t be siphoning from the “bank of KDOT” the portion of sales tax revenues that can be used for new projects the need for which are tied to not-quite-sudden but developing changes in the Kansas economy.

Do you build a road to lure a factory or new businesses to Kansas in the next 10 years as under old transportation plans, or do you watch how the economy is growing, and where, and then make the investment to make it successful?

That new Forward program being considered also will see local units of government investing in their futures by participating in the cost of highway projects in their areas. Nothing like a local investment to make things work, rather than just hoping highway-builders will buy their lunches at local restaurants.

Yep, we’re interested in seeing how this works out…