PITTSBURG — Community members, elected officials and industry leaders discussed the future of U.S. Highway 69 and infrastructure growth Monday, during a Transportation Town Hall led by Economic Lifelines Kansas.

Economic Lifelines is a statewide coalition of business organizations and community groups

which has provided the grassroots support for comprehensive transportation programs in

Kansas for over 30 years. Monday, the group brought in industry leaders and elected officials to discuss how the they can better advocate for transportation improvements in southeast Kansas, and what should be priority projects.

“We want to hear what needs are being met, and what needs aren’t in southeast Kansas,” Economic Lifelines Executive Director Tara Mays said. “And we also want to discuss transportation beyond the life of the T-Works 10-year project.”

T-Works is a Kansas Department of Transportation plan for multiple projects statewide — totalling approximately $8 billion — which was created in 2010. Twenty-three projects under the T-Works plan were postponed last year following funding transfers from the program to help balance the state budget. One such project was the expansion of Highway 69 into four lanes from Fort Scott to Crawford County.

During the last session, the Kansas State Legislature expanded bonding authority to cover the $7.1 billion needed for T-Works over the next two years before it expires.

Economic Lifelines brought in Kansas Ready Mixed Concrete Association Executive Director Jerry Younger, Kansas Asphalt Pavement Association Executive Director Dan Scherschlight and Kansas Contractors Association Executive Vice President Michael White to have a panel discussion with community members, elected officials and industry people.

Highway 69 was a large topic of discussion during the panel, including what will be the future of the project. The expansion was originally designed as a freeway, which would have no roads intersecting with the highway. Many thought this would increase safety along the corridor, but the project has now been redesigned as an expressway, which will still include intersections with side roads.

“Highway 69 was a huge let down,” Midwest Minerals President and CEO Steve Sloan said. “Just miles from here what used to be Highway 71 in Missouri is now an interstate. There’s a reason businesses are going in along that corridor, and many of us don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel for Highway 69.”

Since 2010, approximately $3.35 billion has been diverted from the state’s highway fund to other areas.

Younger — who formerly worked at KDOT — said it takes about $380 million just to maintain the state’s current road system. He said about $900 million comes into the state highway fund each year with state dollars and federal aid, but much of it comes off the top for debt service payments, operating costs, engineering costs and more.

“Once it’s all said and done, it’s down to about $220 million left for maintenance and any improvements,” Younger said. “So something has to give, which it did with the bonding authority approved for T-Works over the next two fiscal years, but beyond that additional revenue or cuts will still be needed.”

Much of the money planned to be used for expansion projects through T-Works will now be used to maintain the existing system.

Pittsburg City Manager Daron Hall said the change cannot wait until 2020.

White said a special committee is being formed to took specifically at transportation, and he plans to advocate for a new plan being put into place quickly.

“I feel strongly that we have to have a plan in place by the end of the 2019 legislative session,” White said. “Part of why we wanted to do this tour is so people can be a part of that advocacy and inform us on what is a priority for their region.”

State Representative Adam Lusker (D-Frontenac) said he believed putting LLC companies back on the tax roster through the legislature’s tax plan passed during the last session was a step in the right direction.

“Hopefully that’s the first step to restoring funding for highways,” he said. “And I will continue to make Highway 69 a priority for this area.”

Hall said making sure transportation funds are not used for other causes is another priority.

“It’s hard to talk about increasing a fund that can keep being raided,” he said. “Recently it’s been a way for the governor and his people to fund everything and keep taxes at the level they want them.”

The state’s motor fuel tax was also discussed. With more vehicles becoming available that do not use fuel — like electric cars — people at the town hall said it may be time for the legislature to revisit how it taxes road users.

“Other states have been looking at a VMT — vehicle miles traveled — tax,” Scherschlight said. “That hasn’t come up in Kansas yet, but it could be a possibility, although there is a privacy aspect.”

Expanding the turnpike authority was also discussed. Younger said the section of the Kansas Turnpike between Kansas City and Topeka pays for the majority of the turnpike’s maintenance, but many other areas where a turnpike could be implemented don’t see the traffic load necessary to privately fund maintenance.

“A tolling aspect is something we may see as an option to layer in,” he said. “But for most roadways, public funding would still be necessary.”

— Chance Hoener is a staff writer for the Morning Sun. He can be emailed at choener@morningsun.net or follow him on Twitter @ReporterChance.