The Kansas Department of Transportation’s promise to spend $8 million on all 105 Kansas counties through the T-Works program has almost come to fruition, but four counties remain, and two of those are in southwest Kansas.

Though T-Works has delivered on its promise to most counties to invest in the state’s highway preservation, expansion and modernization, as well as aviation, transit and rail, Greeley and Stanton counties are among the four that still haven’t seen that promise fully executed, and KDOT has until 2020 to deliver on its 10-year commitment.

According to the T-Works website, which monitors how much money is spent by KDOT since 2010 in relation to its $8 million promise, $6.3 million has been spent in Greeley County and $6.8 million has been spent in Stanton County. Wichita County just recently climbed above the line and now sits at $8.1 million. Rush County has almost reached the mark at $7.8 million, and Chautauqua County in southeast Kansas trails behind with just $4.9 million spent through the program.

Other counties have seen expenditures well in excess of $8 million. In Finney County, $47.3 million has been spent. In Ford, $41.3 million has been spent. In Haskell County, where KDOT resurfaced U.S. Highway 83 from the 83/160/144 junction to the Finney County line and reconstructed the intersection of U.S. Highways 56 and 83, $57.4 million has been spent.

Meanwhile, urban Johnson County has seen an expenditure of $674.5 million. Its neighbor, Wyandotte County, has received $261.6 million. In Shawnee County, KDOT has spent $197.9 million, and in Sedgwick County the department has spent $443.2 million.

No county left behind

Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, is the vice chair of the Senate transportation committee and has said that it’s important for rural counties to ardently represent their interests when it comes to roads. He said in a recent interview that Greely and Stanton counties are set to see their $8 million promise fulfilled "in short order," a promise that every county paid into with the 5-cent sales tax enacted to fund T-Works.

Doll says he has been vocal in his advocacy of southwest Kansas roadways, "a squeaky wheel" as he calls himself, especially because he believes many area residents have forgotten the promise made to them by the state.

According to Doll, state officials have tried to justify the trickling road expenditures in parts of rural Kansas by claiming there simply aren’t any projects to work on. He says shoulders on the roads would be a start.

"My whole thing was, we charged a tax for $8 million for every county, and we weren’t delivering that promise," Doll said. "So I was very concerned about that. But I’m confident it’s being taken care of."

With more senators and representatives concentrated in urban areas, Doll says places like Johnson and Sedgwick counties can exert a strong influence in the statehouse.

But as a bill travels through the Legislature that would form a task force to lay the groundwork for a new transportation plan in the next decade, Doll says he has been assured rural Kansas will be represented on the 30-member team charged with identifying the state’s biggest transportation needs.

The bill passed through the Senate with a vote of 33-5, and now it’s in the House.

The task force is set to include members of the House and Senate, the Kansas Association of Counties, Kansas Contractors Association, Kansas Motor Carriers Association, and one person appointed by the governor.

T-Works' effectiveness also has been hampered by habitual deep sweeps from the transportation budget intended to buoy the weight of significant state fiscal shortfalls in recent years. The Wichita Eagle reported that over the last 20 years, more than $3.3 billion in tax revenues were diverted from their intended use for state highways. That diversion resulted in the delay of 25 KDOT projects since 2016 amid a $350 million budget gap.

According to KDOT, the remaining 23 delayed projects are valued at more than $525 million and include a project in Gray County that would create a 7-mile, four-lane expressway from Cimarron east to the Ford County line for $32 million, and another related project that would continue that effort for 9 miles from the Ford county line to Dodge City for $37 million.

Two other projects would create a pair of 3-mile, four-lane expressways in Seward County near Liberal for more than $44 million.

In an ostensible effort to address these looming projects, Gov. Jeff Colyer called for an end to the state’s reliance on highway fund sweeps.

"We must end the highway funding sweeps and build an effective plan that promotes economic development and strengthens our transportation network," Colyer said in his first major speech to lawmakers earlier this month.

He did not offer a method or timeline by which to accomplish that directive, but a spokesperson later stated that the governor wants a task force on transportation to identify the best path forward.

'Back off of it'

Doll called for restoring the highway fund to the level it was at 20 years ago, noting unprecedented sweeps over the last four years in an administration that delivered huge tax cuts at the expense of nearly every state agency and especially the highway fund.

"Nonetheless," Doll said, "we’ve always swept transportation. We always will probably."

Doll explained that lawmakers look to the transportation fund, otherwise known as the "Bank of KDOT," for emergency money because revenues from gas taxes largely fund the department’s projects. Doll says the funds are a good alternative to other moneys generated through income and property tax revenues.

When asked if ending highway fund sweeps immediately would be unrealistic, Doll said yes.

"If we ended all the highway transfers immediately, we would either have to raise income tax a great deal or property tax," he said. "I don’t think we’ll end completely the transfers, and I probably wouldn’t want us to end all the transfers of the highway fund. That’s probably unrealistic. It’s been going on… for longer than I’ve been around. It’s nothing new. It’s just the level we’ve taken it, we need to back off of it."

A growing region

T-Works has still managed to produce some positive results. In its 2018 annual report, KDOT indicated that the program has improved more than 12,400 miles of state highways and 829 Kansas bridges.

But with increasing truck activity in southwest Kansas — brought on in part by added traffic from the Dairy Farmers of America Meadowlark dairy plant and the Transportation Partners and Logistics, LLC, transload faclity, to the existing traffic from area beef packing plants — healthy roadways are of increasing importance.

Trucks ship 4 million pounds of milk a day to the dairy plant from 12 member farms in southwest Kansas. It is the largest powder milk facility in the world.

In September, Alan McEntee, the Garden City plant program manager, said the plant would receive 84 truckloads of milk a day from 80,000 cows and produce 550,000 pounds of whole milk powder daily to be shipped in 17 loads across the country and the world.

On Thursday, McEntee said the plant averages 110 truck movements a day, and that is only part of the tapestry of industrial ag shipping activity in southwest Kansas.

Jim Orr, president of TP&L, said the $14 million transload shipping distribution center in Garden City is set to facilitate about 5,000 truck movements a year.

Lona DuVall, president of the Finney County Economic Development Corp., said the travel distance those movements entail only emphasizes the importance of healthy roadways.

"Transportation, quality transportation is obviously imperative for economic growth," she said. "Especially because we are somewhat isolated from our markets, we have to have access to getting our products. We’re largely an export region, and we have to have good quality transportation in order to get our products to the marketplace."

The middle of nowhere

The extent of Garden City’s isolation is magnified by the findings of a new report by the Washington Post issued earlier this week. Using geographic data collected through the Oxford University Big Data Institute’s Malaria Atlas Project, the Post set out to find the "middle of nowhere" in the United States, generating a constellation of locations that meet that definition by various metrics.

One of those metrics put Garden City at No. 1.

According to the report, of U.S. communities with a population of 25,000 or more, Garden City is the most isolated from any metropolitan area with more than 75,000 people. By the same metric, Dodge City ranks fourth.

When it comes to communities with populations between 5,000 and 24,999, Colby ranks first and Ulysses third. And for communities with populations between 1,000 and 4,999, Oakley ranks fourth, Scott City seventh, Holcomb eighth and Lakin 10th.

All counted, eight of the 30 U.S. locations listed as some of the most isolated population centers in the country are in western Kansas.

"Every single person who lives in this region is impacted by our roads," DuVall said. "All of our ag producers are producing products that are exported, so they have to have access to the marketplace. They have to be able to get their product from here to wherever it needs to go in the world."

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com