A Kansas Senate committee unanimously voted Monday to endorse confirmation of a former executive at the Burns & McDonnell engineering firm to be secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation.
Julie Lorenz, who has served as interim secretary of KDOT since January, said the agency must be rebuilt after hundreds of millions of dollars for highways was swept from transportation budgets and led to delays in the statewide T-Works program. In addition, she said, the agency's experienced workforce has been depleted.
The challenge is to address construction promises made in the past and develop an innovative vision for the state's transportation infrastructure future at a time of intense competition for state government resources, she said.
"That means sharing and collaborating as openly as possible and having the courage and the wisdom to say 'no' when it doesn't benefit the entire state," Lorenz said.
Lorenz, of Lenexa, worked at the Burns & McDonnell engineering firm in Kansas City, Mo., and was facilitator of the Kansas Legislature's transportation task force in 2018. Earlier in her career, she was an aide to Deb Miller, who served as KDOT secretary to Govs. Sam Brownback, Mark Parkinson and Kathleen Sebelius.
Lorenz was at KDOT during development of the $8 billion T-Works highway program launched in 2010. Dozens of projects in T-Works were suspended by the Brownback administration because of funding cutbacks. Over the years, so much money earmarked for transportation was diverted to balance the budget that the agency was nicknamed the "Bank of KDOT."
Lorenz said she would recuse herself from KDOT contracting discussions involving Burns & McDonnell and a consulting company employing her husband.
"I have public-sector values and private-sector urgency," she said.
On Sunday, Lorenz was confronted with a post to one of KDOT's official Twitter accounts denouncing President Donald Trump as a "delusional communist."
The KDOT employee responsible for the tweet had been hired by the agency in December 2017 and no longer works for the agency or state government, she said.
"Thank you very much for your quick response and taking care of that effectively," said Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Baxter Springs.
Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, Sen. Randall Hardy, R-Salina, and other members of the Senate Transportation Committee said they were impressed by Lorenz's resume and appreciated her willingness to take on the difficult leadership job at KDOT.
Lorenz said the objective was to foster a sustainable transportation network that improved public safety and supported economic development. The agency needs a stream of financing to catch up with transportation expectations and welcome back companies that moved out of state in search of road contracts, she said.
"Most importantly," she said, "we need to close the Bank of KDOT."
KDOT's future depends on renewal of budget stability, as well as identification of more efficient practices and investment in technology, she said.
She said the state can expect to grapple with the possibility of new toll lanes, emergence of automated vehicles and greater reliance on electric cars that don't run on fuels taxed by the state to support road projects.