Kansas Transportation Plan Overhaul Eyed


By John Celock

A group of Kansas lawmakers are looking to overhaul the planning process for the state’s next transportation plan, while the state’s transportation chief said his agency is eying changes as well.

Two state legislators have indicated they want to see the Legislature hire an outside consulting firm to evaluate the state’s transportation needs as the process to devise the next state comprehensive transportation plan takes place, along with changing the time frame for the overall plan from 10 years to six years. The Kansas Department of Transportation is looking to continue the same planning process as before, but is looking at changes to the overall time frame of the plan to six years. The current 10-year $7.8 billion plan – known as TWorks – runs through 2020 and KDOT is looking to start planning its successor this year.

State House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) and House Transportation Committee Chairman Richard Proehl (R-Parsons) told The Celock Report that their asking for an outside consulting firm comes from a desire by lawmakers to have an outside look done at the state’s transportation needs. The recent state government efficiency study by the outside firm of Alvarez and Marsal helped inspire the idea of an outside look at transportation, instead of the traditional grouping of stakeholder groups, local governments and consultants in specified areas, that was used to develop the last plan in 2008 and 2009.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for tearing up perfectly good roads for no reason. We want a comprehensive transportation plan that focuses on needs,” Claeys said. “The state has maintenance needs and growth needs where we will need new infrastructure and where we will replace roads and bridges.”

The idea of hiring an outside consultant came out of conversations between Claeys, Proehl and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. (R-Olathe). Proehl told The Celock Report that right now the plan is to figure out the costs of hiring an outside consultant and starting the process of retaining the consultant.

Proehl said the consultant would be a change from the previous plans used by the state, by allowing the outside look. He said the consultant could “bring a whole different perspective” to state transportation planning and identifying what needs to be replaced, along with new roads or rail lines to add. He said the idea was to reduce the debate between local interest groups on specific projects to add into the plan.

“It is someone coming in with a fresh set of eyes. Not looking at the same things we’ve looked at on each transportation plan,” Proehl said. “They would have a perspective that is not as biased.”

Proehl said a timeframe for the hiring of a consultant has not been determined.

Claeys said that while the A&M efficiency study – which was released earlier this month – helped inspire the idea of an outside consultant, the transportation consultant idea is to not look at efficiency in the transportation plan.

“This isn’t about efficiency. This is about good data. We want to make good decisions based on good data,” he said. “Our long term comprehensive plan for maintaining the highway system, a top five highway system. We want a top five highway system.”

Both lawmakers said the final transportation plan would also dictate funding for the plan, but said a lot of the financing decisions could not be made until a final plan is developed. The consultant would help develop cost estimates for projects to be included in the plan. They did not say if the consultant would weigh in on the current debate about money being swept from the state highway fund to the state’s general fund.

The federal government requires states to develop long-term transportation plans, which include long-term goals for the state’s infrastructure and transportation needs. These plans typically run several decades. In addition states develop more targeted transportation investment plans, which typically run between five to 10 years that lay out specific projects and costs. The federal government recommends the state transportation investment plans be updated every 10 years.

King told The Celock Report that KDOT is planning to start the process of developing the next comprehensive transportation plan this year, following the model used in the last several plans. The current TWorks plan was passed by the Legislature in 2010 following a planning process that went from 2008 to 2009 under the administrations of former Govs. Kathleen Sebelius (D) and Mark Parkinson (D).

King said that while he plans to work with lawmakers on the plan he envisions it being led by KDOT.

We will have this thing be an agency led discussion,” King said. “We’ll bring in many other Kansans and groups.”

During the last process, a steering committee consisting of stakeholders from various transportation related areas, along with local governments, business groups and legislators helped drive the discussion. Joel Skelley, KDOT’s policy director who was involved in the process to develop TWorks, said the last plan also included three outside consultants covering engineering, policy and economic impact as part of the plan. He said the committee held various meetings, along with talking to groups around the state to develop a plan.

“That was to get a broad range of topics,” Skelley said of the TWorks planning conversations. “What to do and how to move forward to develop TWorks.”

Skelley said the TWorks process differed from the process used on the plan prior to that one, in that more private individuals and stakeholders were involved in the planning conversations. He said the plan prior to TWorks involved many conversations with local governments around the state.

“We used a lot of stakeholders to meet the federal requirements,” Skelley said of the TWorks planning process. “We can get a quality program for the state and meet the federal requirements.”

To meet federal requirements, the planning process for the next comprehensive transportation plan will include a look at roads, air service, passenger rail and freight rail. The current plan includes $5 million for airports, along with $5 million a year for short line rail.

King told The Celock Report that KDOT is interested in reducing the length of the plan as well. He said that a six-year plan is being discussed within the agency. He said part of the discussions around six years would allow for a plan that is around for the tenures of many legislators to support the plan through the life of the plan.

King also said that he wanted to explore a rolling three year plan, which would keep the state with a six year plan, but allow for decisions on new projects to be made every three years to allow for a closer look at state transportation needs.

“It will be more likely rolling to add three years on to the plan so it’s always six years,” he said. “Legislators can always tweak it every three years based on the economy. That is one idea.”

King stressed through that the rolling plan or a shorter plan is just ideas being discussed within his agency. He said that the final plan length and whether or not to use a rolling decision would be made, as the final transportation plan is developed to send the lawmakers.

Proehl and Claeys said that they also want to see a discussion over the length of the plan, which is currently 10 years. They said they’d like to see a shorter plan, which would make funding decisions easier to make. They noted the decline in oil prices has reduced the cost of asphalt in recent years. Both said the shorter term plan would allow for a better gauge on how much the state could be spending on asphalt and other transportation related costs during the life of the plan.

King confirmed that asphalt bid prices have reduced for KDOT.

Skelley said that states use various methods to govern transportation planning. He said that some make regular updates to their long term and short term plans. He said that others look primarily to their long-term plan for guidance in developing transportation plans. He said the long term plans are good for a macro outlook to planning, but not for the micro-level targeting that TWorks and its predecessors have allowed.

“Those plans we look to a horizon of 20 years but those don’t have a fine tuned details of TWorks of the specific projects,” Skelley said. “We’re somewhat unique in that regard. There are several states that don’t do that. They’ll use their federal long term transportation plan to do the funds and work through the projects.”

A review of various state transportation plans shows a varied approach around the country. Idaho has a five-year plan in place, while the Transportation Investment Advocacy Center reported last year that Rhode Island transportation officials released a new 10-year plan for that state, based off a new transportation policy from Gov. Gina Raimondo (D).

North Carolina has both a long-term plan looking towards 2040, along this year launched a new 10-year transportation investment plan. New York has a 25-year transportation master plan, launched in 2005 under former Gov. George Pataki (R), along with a transportation investment plan with more targeted plans across the state.

King said that one thing he would like to see changed for the planning is the $1.3 billion in “historic transfers” built into the plan. He said this includes funding for the Kansas Highway Patrol and other areas that state lawmakers decided several decades ago could come from the highway fund.

Proehl said that whatever is determined by an outside consultant hired by the Legislature would not be a final TWorks plan, but rather part of the overall process.

“It would be guidance to help,” he said. It would not the be the final plan.”

Proehl stressed with a variety of needs around the state, including differences between the densely populated Kansas City and Wichita metro regions and the rural areas around the state, an outside consultant can balance those needs. He noted competing local interests have dominated the planning process in previous years.

Claeys said that while King and KDOT wants to look at the replicating the previous system of a large group of transportation related stakeholders, he and lawmakers see the outside consultant as being the best bet to drive the beginning of the conversation.

“We want the independence of an outside firm commissioned by the Legislature, he said. “The primary stakeholder is the taxpayer.”