By John Celock
A key committee chairman in the Kansas Legislature has said his committee is unlikely to discuss a transportation consultant proposal he was involved in planning conversations about.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Richard Proehl (R-Parsons) told The Celock Report that it is unlikely that his committee will discuss a proposal for the state Legislature to retain an outside consultant to study the state’s transportation system as part of the planning process for the state’s next comprehensive transportation plan. Proehl, who was one of three lawmakers who had conversations about the possibility of retaining a consultant, had earlier expressed support for a “fresh set of eyes” to study the transportation system. Proehl’s decision to likely not have a hearing comes as transportation stakeholder groups have expressed reservations to the consultant proposal, saying that it could potentially cut local communities out of the conversation.
“I would doubt that we will this year. There is still a possibility,” Proehl told The Celock Report about his committee discussing the idea. “I want to get input from more of the stakeholders before a decision is made.”
The idea for the consultant came out of a conversation between Proehl, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. (R-Olathe) and House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) on the state’s next comprehensive transportation plan. The consultant idea is similar to the Legislature’s decision to retain the consulting firm of Alvarez & Marsal last year to conduct an efficiency study of state government. Claeys and Proehl told The Celock Report earlier this week that the consultant proposal could bring a “data driven” study to the transportation plan, along with a new perspective. The state’s current 10-year $7.8 billion transportation plan – known as TWorks – expires in 2020 and the Kansas Department of Transportation plans to start work on the next plan this year.
“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 earlier this week. “They would have a perspective that is not as biased.”
On Wednesday, Proehl told The Celock Report that he wants to make sure that communities around the state are involved in the planning process and not just a consultant, a refrain heard from stakeholder groups as well. Proehl said that he has not “changed my mind” on the issue and said that he is interested in exploring the possibility.
“I am interested in the idea and the concept,” Proehl said. “I don’t know if we can get to the point where we can do this year or not. We are in year six of a 10 year program.”
Proehl said that the House Transportation Committee has a “number of issues coming down the pike,” noting the committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Thursday about a bill to raise vehicle registration fees to provide more money for the Kansas Highway Patrol to hire new troopers. The state is dealing with a trooper shortage and lawmakers have been grappling with the trooper shortage for the last year.
Proehl also said the committee plans to look at legislation relating to hauling large equipment during inclement weather to fix road and rail issues.
A review of the committee’s schedules on the state Legislature’s website show that the committee has averaged two meetings a week since lawmakers reconvened earlier this month. Many of the meetings have been either information hearings or reviews of outstanding bills.
Proehl said that he does not want to dictate the committee’s actions, but rather allow the committee members to make the decisions.
“I really strive not to bias them one way or the other,” he said. “It should be a committee decision not what the chair desires or not desires.”
No decision has been made about which committee would consider the issue of retaining an outside consultant within the state House of Representatives. The decisions involving the retaining of an outside efficiency consultant were inserted into the state budget by the House Appropriations Committee as part of the budget writing process. In addition to the Transportation Committee, the proposal for a transportation consultant could be taken up by the Appropriations Committee or the Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee.
In addition to his transportation chairmanship, Proehl serves on both the Appropriations Committee and the Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee. He said that he would not object to either of those committees discussing the issue. He said that he would take a look at a consultant proposal that came before either of those panels before making a final decision on how he would vote.
“I would sure take a look at it. I don’t know what the proposal is. I need to know that there will be local input from all over the state,” Proehl said. “They are the people that we are serving. We really need to know what their needs are. What they determine what their needs are.”
Claeys said that the discussions involving an outside consultant would not make the consultant the final decision maker in the plan, but rather part of the process, with a variety of voices being heard. He said earlier this week it would allow for lawmakers to better gauge how to spend tax dollars on transportation and allow for a “data driven approach.”
Stakeholder groups involved in transportation issues said that they want to make sure local communities are not shut out of the decision making process for the next comprehensive transportation plan. In past years, the plan was developed through a series of steering committee meetings and hearings with local officials from throughout the state. KDOT officials told The Celock Report earlier this week that the previous planning processes did retain consultants focused primarily on engineering, policy and economic issues. The steering committee consisted of representatives from stakeholder groups, along with state lawmakers and local leaders.
Kansas Contractors Association executive director Bob Totten told The Celock Report that he considers the consultant proposal to be a “possibility” in terms of the planning process, but stressed the need for local voices to be heard.
“This idea might be a possibility. You still need public input,” Totten said. “You need to know what is going on. It is good to get a different set of eyes but it is important to get the views of the communities you serve. That is what the Department of Transportation is responsible to do. You need input from the people and ultimately the people will pay for this.”
Kansas Motor Carriers Association executive director Tom Whitaker also said that local voices need to be heard. Whitaker questioned though how different an outside consultant would be from the previous processes that the state has gone through. He said that in the past KDOT has held meetings to judge what is needed, which could be similar to a consultant’s approach.
“I don’t know if that’s any different than what KDOT did,” Whitaker said. “KDOT also went out and spoke to stakeholders and had stakeholder meetings around the state to find out the prioritized needs of the different portions of the state of Kansas. It is another way to view it.”
Both Totten and Whitaker said that lawmakers should be more focused on the state’s highway fund and the financing of the current transportation plan. They both noted that $1.4 billion has been taken out of the highway fund since Gov. Sam Brownback (R) took office in 2011 to plug budget holes in the state’s general fund. The general fund has dropped since lawmakers and Brownback enacted tax cuts in 2012. Under the Kansas Constitution the portions of the highway fund coming from the fuel tax cannot be used for purposes other than the highway fund. The highway fund monies coming from a dedicated sales tax though can be moved from the highway fund to the general fund.
Totten said that his membership, along with a group of legislators, is concerned about the state of KDOT and the highway fund. He said that the drop in the highway fund could hurt the state’s road conditions, which have ranked in the top of national road and bridge rankings.
Totten said that the cuts have reduced 1200 miles of road preservation work to 250 miles and work on 115 bridges a year to 58.
“Anyone that has any knowledge of that kind of reduction it will detoriate and diminish in safety and the ability to travel,” he said.
In a presentation to state legislative fiscal committees earlier this month, state Budget Director Shawn Sullivan said that 98 percent of the state’s interstate roads are rated to be “good condition” while 89 percent of non-interstate roads are rated as such. Sullivan also said that 86 percent of bridges on state highways are rated to be in “good condition.” Sullivan also said that the “projected construction lettings” are increasing annually between Fiscal Year 2015 and Fiscal Year 2017.
Kansas Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Mike O’Neal, a former state House speaker, said that he is supportive of the idea of bringing in a consultant for a “data driven” study but wants to make sure that it is part of a comprehensive look that includes local outreach.
“The idea of an outside consultant to offer a ‘data-driven’ viewpoint is smart and certainly should be in the mix, but we would be concerned if this is being touted as the most important or only component of the study that needs to take place in crafting our next highway plan,” O’Neal said in a statement to The Celock Report. “We would tend to support an ‘all of the above’ approach.
O’Neal said that he was involved in three comprehensive transportation plans during his legislative service and that a variety of sources are needed “to achieve a balanced plan that involves and serves the entire state.” He said that the final plan would need approval from the state Legislature.
Among the sources O’Neal said should be part of the process include local officials, stakeholder groups within transportation, the general public, KDOT and the business community.
“An outside consultant would add value to the overall product but is no substitute for the other historic sources of input that have stood the test of time and have resulted in bi-partisan approval of our past and present comprehensive highway plans,” O’Neal said. “We have great respect for Secretary King and look forward to working with Secretary King and the legislature on a strategic plan for our Kansas highway system.”
Claeys said that he does not view the hiring of a consultant to be the sole source of information for the assembling of a new comprehensive transportation plan. He noted that the consultant would be one of the avenues used in the plan, along with KDOT studies and outreach to local leaders and others.
“A study of our needs is not to the exclusion of any of the things we have done before including the input of local communities, the input of agencies or the input of legislators,” he said. “This is an additional set of data in making decisions on this process.”
Claeys took aim at those who would oppose a consultant, saying they would be looking out for their own economic interest and to “continue fleecing the taxpayer.”
“I think that it is important to have as much information as possible to decide billions of dollars in taxpayer spending,” he said. “Anyone who says we need less information makes me extremely suspect of their motives.”
Local leaders also said they want to make sure their voices are heard in the discussion. Barton County Commissioner Alicia Straub (R-Ellinwood) and Frontenac Councilman Ethan Spurling (D) said they believe getting local input will make sure small cities and rural counties are heard in the final plan.
Straub pointed to an October 2014 town hall meeting that King held in Ellinwood where a variety of local issues were brought to his attention. Straub also said that she would want to make sure that the data generated by an outside consultant was used for the benefit of all regions of the state.
“You can usually make data say whatever you want it to say,” she said. “Depends on who is doing it.”
Spurling said that small cities like his fight to have their voices heard in Topeka and he wants to make sure a consultant does not drown those out. He said Southeast Kansas has a variety of transportation needs including the construction of a four-lane highway.
“I think as a small community we already fight to have our concerns and voices heard in Topeka,” he said. “One more systematic barrier to that is not a good thing for small communities.”
Proehl said that he wants to make sure the state’s residents are part of the overall planning process.
“It is their roads and their bridges. They know a lot better than I would know or the secretary of Transportation,” he said. “The local people know what their needs and priorities would be. It allows each area to come up with projects that they feel are important.”