After speaking briefly about her plans for state transportation funds and listening about the ins and outs of Finney County Transit, newly-appointed Secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation Julie Lorenz addressed a room full of local representatives.

“How can we be more helpful? How could we be better partners?” she asked.

The Wednesday stop was one of several local check-ins for Lorenz, who was appointed to lead KDOT in January. The series of short meetings was the precursor to future visits across the state in June to talk about long-range transportation plans, and in the fall, to determine stakeholders’ regional needs and priorities. But that sliver of an afternoon, spent briefly standing amidst representatives from Garden City, Finney County, the Finney County Committee on Aging and Finney County Transit, was about learning.

In addition to funneling KDOT funds back into the projects they were meant for and rebuilding the department’s stripped and overworked staff, communication with constituents is a priority for Lorenz, she said in a separate interview.

And she got it. Finney County Transit Director Rhonda Everett broke down the city and county’s City Link and Mini-Bus programs, which are funded mostly by KDOT and combined facilitate about 82,000 rides per year, Everett said. Additional KDOT funds could help the service — used by residents of all backgrounds, including older, disabled and student riders — expand or improve, local officials said.

“The funding that they do provide in this area is providing an awesome service for our community, and that service is needed and that funding is needed in this area,” Everett said in a separate interview.

New buses equipped to handle alternate fuel sources, like electricity or natural gas, could save the city and county money, said Sam Curran, director of Garden City Public Works. More state funding also could help the department expand its services to weekends or buy and operate a larger bus to transport Tyson employees to work, said Curran and Kathleen Whitley, board chairperson of the Committee on Aging.

The loss of bus services running through Garden City to Wichita was also felt by both residents and Finney County Transit, said Shari Campbell, executive director of the committee. Dozens of local residents call asking about the former service each month, and the department no longer receives about $10,000 in profits from running it, Everett said.

Finney County Commissioner Lon Pishny emphasized safety of drivers on rural highways often dominated by wide loads.

The issue is not a new one. When the Joint Legislative Transportation Task Force, a coalition of representatives from KDOT, Congress, Kansas communities and the transportation industry, including Lorenz and Garden City Manager Matt Allen, came to Garden City in October, local residents asked repeatedly for safety improvements to area highways like additional lanes, passing lanes and shoulders.

That concern of highway safety is by far the No. 1 “biggest interest piece” of rural communities, Lorenz said, and one that needs to be addressed.

Kansas’ urban safety statistics are comparable to neighboring states, but the same statistics for rural areas are not.

“It’s on the rural side that we’re not doing as well as some comparable states. So, it is a concern to us. The rural safety piece is really important,” Lorenz said.

Lorenz said she was impressed by Finney County Transit, and especially struck by a warm bus driver that greeted her when stopping by the center. As she visits communities around the state and faces billions of dollars of transportation needs in the state, she said she would “ask for hope.”

“It is totally fair for each community to have their lists of needs and the projects they think are most important, but at the end of the day, we can’t fund all the needs across the state. That’s never going to happen," she said. "So, we have to figure out what’s most important in each of the regions."

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.