July 12, 2016 at The LUX
Engage ICT’s July Democracy On Tap event, held at The Lux in downtown Wichita, was all about transportation.
Although Kansas has the 4th-highest total of highway miles in the U.S., the state—and Wichita—face a number of transportation issues. Tom Hein, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Transportation, says the agency’s goal is to maintain the infrastructure in place to ensure the “safe moment of people and the safe movement of commerce” throughout the state. There are about 10 active construction projects going now, he said, and “they’re for the greater good of us all.”
But he said work is focusing more on making the transportation system more efficient—not bigger.
“We may not be able to build too many more lanes of highway,” Hein said. “We have to start using our highway system more efficiently.”
Phil Nelson, interim director at the Wichita Area Metro Planning Organization, noted the FAST Act will provide $305 billion over the next five years to fix infrastructure in the U.S., but questioned whether we’re planning for the right kinds of transportation in the future, when five different generations of people will each have their own wants and needs. Instead of just planning for bridges and highways, he said we might have to look at more hiking and biking trails.
“We can’t talk about one-size-fits-all anymore for transportation,” he said.
Annette Graham, director of the Sedgwick County Department for Aging, focused more on what she called the “human side of transportation.” She said community resources are moving more toward the outside areas of communities, and are no longer located in the core of the city.
If people can’t afford a vehicle, she said, it impacts their ability to access those resources, such as health care. Her agency helps transport “transit-dependent” individuals who can’t easily get to medical appointments, or even work.
“A lot of income and resources goes to transportation,” she said. “[It’s] not a low-cost service.”
Wichita recently restructured its public transit system, changing routes based on community feedback, but the system is relying more and more on federal funding as the city hasn’t changed its commitment for the past several years, said Wichita Transit Director Steve Spade. The department’s annual budget is about $16 million, with $3.4 million coming from the City of Wichita. Service is still limited in hours, and buses don’t run on Sundays.
Spade says services in the Midwest have a different role than they do in larger, more urban areas. Of the city’s 2 million annual riders, about 86 percent earn less than $30,000 a year; 77 percent are 35 or older; and 50 percent don’t have a car at all. In urban communities, close to 75 percent of trips are for work; Wichita has a more transit-dependent population.
“That tells us we’re missing something that other communities have,” Spade said.
He says the department is looking at cost, community need and funding to make public transit more sustainable in Wichita, with more reshaping to come in the next 18 months.
Dr. Elizabeth Ablah, with KU Medical Center in Wichita, said conversations about transportation and infrastructure often forget the public health component. She mentioned the idea of “complete streets,” where all modes of transportation—walking running, bicycles, cars, buses—carry equal value. She urged Democracy On Tap attendees to get involved in communities and learn about the individuals who control investments.
It’s a sentiment KDOT’s Tom Hein repeated. He said changes to Kansas and Wichita’s transportation systems will take advocacy that starts early and continues on. The state is in year 7 of a 10-year transportation program; he said someone is thinking about the next 10 years, and it should be the public.
Candidates “won’t mind hear from you this year,” he said. “They need to continue to hear from you after they’re elected.”