It's too early to tell how a looming budget shortfall will influence discussions of the state's next comprehensive highway plan, a Kansas Department of Transportation official said Wednesday.


     It's too early to tell how a looming budget shortfall will influence discussions of the state's next comprehensive highway plan, a Kansas Department of Transportation official said Wednesday.
    "There's already existing financial issues on the state side that the Legislature's going to have to deal with this coming session," said Jerry Younger, deputy secretary for engineering. "And whether they can work those out and, on top of that, be able to talk about a new highway program or not, we'll see."
    Rep. Pat George, who serves on the House Appropriations and Transportation committees, said that lawmakers will begin discussing a new plan when they convene in January. He added that they are already tossing around various possibilities, such as starting with a smaller-scale plan.
    "If the economy stays where it's at or even worsens a little bit, we would possibly put together a kind of needs-based transportation plan that would be a year or two and then roll out a longer-range 10-year plan," he said.
    Discussions of the next highway plan will be complicated by a possible $137 million shortfall in the state budget by June 2009, due to predictions of a substantial drop in revenues for the current fiscal year.
    A recent forecast said that if lawmakers don't address the problem during the 2009 legislative session, the budget hole could grow to nearly $1 billion by fiscal year 2010.
    The shortfall means that lawmakers will have to scrutinize all areas of state spending, including prior commitments to provide more money for public schools and social services. At the same time, lawmakers will need to look at ways to generate more revenue to help close the gap.
    Those issues could well shape conversations about the state's next comprehensive transportation plan when the Legislature convenes in January.
    The current $5 billion plan is funded by motor fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees and other sources. It will end in June 2009.
    Earlier this month, worries about funding prompted KDOT to delay seeking bids on most of the remaining construction projects in the current plan for two months. That list included the first phase of the Kansas Highway 61 project in Reno County, which carried an estimated $58 million price tag.
    Younger said his agency has collected Kansans' suggestions for a new 10-year highway program and is working on a final report containing those suggestions, which will be submitted to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and lawmakers. That report could become the starting point for discussions about what should be included in the next plan and possible sources of funding.
    But Younger said the Legislature's first priority will be finding ways to plug the hole in the state's budget for fiscal years 2009 and 2010.
    "I'm sure that's going to take the lion's share of the discussion during the Legislature to kind of work those things out and balance the budget accordingly," he said. "Hopefully during that, or after that's finished, there can be some discussion about a new program."
    George said until the economy improves, lawmakers will be reluctant to commit themselves to funding a 10-year highway program. But he added that a scaled-back program could allow the state to complete some of the remaining projects in the current plan.
    George also said it's possible that a new federal economic stimulus plan could include funding for state and local road projects.
    "If those dollars would be significant, we could possibly use that — along with once we see the economy is stabilized and starting to grow again — then we could put together a 10-year plan," he said.
   
    Reach Eric Swanson at (620) 408-9917 or e-mail him at eric.swanson@dodgeglobe.com.