In what could be a blow to the road construction industry in Kansas, the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) on Tuesday said it will only spend $44 million on new projects in the next fiscal year.
For the past several years KDOT has let about $400 million just on preservation projects, including roads and bridges.
“It’s going to cause us additional concern about the safety and reliability of our roads, getting product to market and also providing jobs for many of the folks who are in the construction business,” says Bob Totten with the Kansas Contractors Association.
Totten says some companies in the state have laid off workers due to the KDOT cuts, but most are finding work in neighboring states. Contractors are starting to find additional work in Nebraska which has has slowly been raising its gas tax over the last three years to fund road projects. Kansas companies are also finding work in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
It's better than not working, but, says Totten, it does nothing for Kansas. “The problem with that is that the employees will be spending money in Oklahoma for gas, food, whatever else they need to have and they won’t be home mowing the grass or watching Johnny play baseball.”
Gov. Sam Brownback wants to sweep $600 million from KDOT in the next two years to balance a budget devastated by the 2012 tax cuts. Since 2011, $1.3 billion has been swept from KDOT and preservation projects all over the state have been delayed.
The news for KDOT just keeps getting worse.
In just the last two months 34 road preservation projects have been delayed. Budget Director Shawn Sullivan told the Legislature after the Governor's State of the State address that KDOT will not begin any new expansion projects in the next two fiscal years.
While the contractors are worried Kansas roads will substantially deteriorate with these cuts, KDOT maintains state roads are doing just fine. The department says in 2015 98 percent of interstate highways exceeded performance targets for road conditions and 90 percent of other state roads are in good condition.
"Kansas continues to have one of the nation’s best highway systems and our expectation is that the spending level will allow us to continue to meet or exceed our performance targets," KDOT Secretary Richard Carlson said in a statement.
KDOT also stresses that it will spend $286 million on projects already approved or underway.
The governor's office also continues to insist Kansas roads are fine. “Kansas has the 3rd best highway system in America. Going forward, we are focusing on maintenance and preservation to continue to meet and surpass our performance standards,” says Brownback spokesperson Melika Willoughby.
That ranking is based on 2013 data and comes from the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.
Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR and the Kansas News Service and is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.