As legislators gear up to replace the Transportation Works for Kansas (T-WORKS) program inaugurated in 2010 and slated for termination in 2020, statewide transportation groups and southwest Kansas lawmakers and officials gathered in Garden City Wednesday to discuss regional transportation needs and and how to tackle them in the future.

Presenters and speakers Wednesday at Garden City Community College included Tara Mays, executive director of Economic Lifelines, a statewide coalition of organizations and community groups providing grassroots support for comprehensive transportation programs in Kansas; Jerry Younger, managing director of the Kansas Aggregate Producers Association and Kansas Ready Mixed Concrete Association and former deputy secretary and state transportation engineer at the Kansas Department of Transportation; Michael White, executive director of the Kansas Contractors Association; and Dan Scherschligt, executive director of the Kansas Asphalt Pavement Association.

The T-WORKS program passed by the Legislature was installed with $8 billion in funding to improve Kansas roadways, create jobs, preserve highway infrastructure and increase economic productivity across the state by greasing the wheels of interstate transportation.

Mays started by articulating the buildup to the T-WORKS program, explaining that a $3.9 billion comprehensive highway program was passed in 1989 with a focus on preservation. That gave way to the passage of another comprehensive transportation program that lasted from 2000 to 2009 with $12.9 billion in funding.

Mays used a chart to illustrate that before the first program was introduced, road “conditions were at or below failing levels.” The chart suggests that from 2000 to 2007, more than 90 percent of all Kansas interstate roadways were in good condition, while more than 85 percent of non-interstate roadways were in good condition. Both programs dedicated a total of about $16.8 billion over 20 years to improve Kansas roadways and the state’s economic viability.

Since then, as evidenced by T-WORKS, Kansas reduced its commitment to its roadways from 2010 into the coming years by almost $5 billion. Mays noted that from 2002 to 2004, the first loans were taken from the state highway fund to be used for other purposes. She explained that the idea was to pay those loans back between 2007 and 2009.

“But as the economy continues to restrict itself in 2005… things sort of take a nosedive,” Mays said, adding that in 2010, transfers from the highway fund to the state’s general fund began to ramp up. Those transfers dipped considerably from 2012 to 2013, skyrocketed to unprecedented levels in 2015, and gradually increased from then on after a slight dip in 2016. The transfers have been ongoing since 2004, amounting to a total of $3.35 billion, and as of right now they show no signs of stopping.

As transfers from the state highway fund continue to rise, spending has seen a gradual reduction since 2016 after leveling out completely in 2015. Mays said that as the state revenues stagnate and transfers from the state highway fund increase, “it really does limit the state’s ability to do things like match federal funding, respond to emerging economic development needs, and all of those items that we know a healthy KDOT really can do.”

One consequence has been a change to the Federal Fund Exchange Program. Under the previous structure, local government could both bank and spend federal dollars without federal restrictions by exchanging those moneys at a rate of 90 cents on the dollar. Under the new structure, local government can no longer bank that federal funding, and the exchange rate to eliminate federal restrictions has been reduced from 90 cents on the dollar to 75 cents on the dollar.

With T-WORKS crippled and 23 projects unfinished, in June the Legislature capped KDOT bond debt at $1.9 billion and expanded KDOT’s authority to issue $400 million in new bonds over the course of FY 2018 and 2019. But with projects incomplete and the lifespan of the T-WORKS set to end soon, the nature of the next 10-year allocation remains murky.

“The path ahead is not certain, and it’s clear to us as we talked with legislators last legislative session, and as we’ve talked to Economic Lifelines members and others in the community, that they’re not unwilling to have a conversation about what is beyond T-WORKS. And from a timing perspective, as we look back… this is about the time to begin the conversation about what does life look like beyond T-WORKS and how long it takes to do the good community outreach that has to happen to build a transportation program,” Mays said.

Younger, White and Scherschligt fielded questions from an audience of legislators and area city and county officials.

In response to a question on how KDOT and its affiliates plan to pay the bills on an already cash-strapped program, Younger noted that T-WORKS alone is $1 billion in debt, and the $400 million in bonding will only allow for a “full preservation” program. Younger said many ways have been suggested as to how those bonds would be repaid, with an interest-only method being one, but way forward remains to be seen.

Younger said $400 million of bonding would require about $32 million in debt service over 20 years.

Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, said he finds it troubling that 23 T-WORKS projects are still unfinished. He noted that numerous counties haven’t seen the economic impact promised by T-WORKS.

White suggested that what was unfinished by T-WORKS may become a starting point for the next plan.

“The reality is, those projects were identified several years ago. They need to be reevaluated,” White said. “Maybe there’s a different priority in a different area of the state now.”

Younger said that the good news is that those projects can be accomplished “fairly quickly,” if necessary.

Doll said he’s accustomed to new programs beginning that prioritize eastern Kansas over western Kansas. He noted that the counties underserved by T-WORKS are all located in western Kansas.

Scherschligt agreed that the projects should be revisited, noting that some people were relocated from their homes so they could begin.

Lona DuVall, president of the Finney County Economic Development Corp., said return on economic productivity should be a primary incentive for future roadway infrastructure improvements, regardless of area populations.

“I think anybody would be pleased to know that if they invested $13 million, $14 million, they could get $350 million put into that with private investment. That should be the goal we’re all looking at,” DuVall said. “Our community has proven that time and time again, that we make the most of those investments… We would just like to know that that (KDOT) partnership is going to be there going forward.”

White seemed to agree.

“Your voice can be heard in the next process, I have no doubt about it,” White said of the western Kansas communities. “You guys have a lot of synergy around regionalism and working together. Just don’t lose sight of that.”

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.