TOPEKA, Kan. — Republican gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt on Wednesday proposed building a four-lane freeway connecting southwest and southeast Kansas through Wichita to promote the kind of economic payback that Interstate 70 delivered during decades at the upstate level.
Schmidt, who is challenging Democratic Governor Laura Kelly in November, said significant parts of the project exist or are planned, budgeted or under construction. The idea would be to connect US 54 to Liberal and US 400 to Dodge City with the four-lane freeway extending west to Kingman from Wichita, a link to the Kellogg Corridor and a extension to Andover, before following US 400 through Parsons to US 69 near Pittsburg.
His campaign statement did not include a preliminary cost for the transportation initiative, but Schmidt pledged to make it a priority to bring together each of the components and fill in the gaps needed to complete the vision.
It would be modeled after President Dwight Eisenhower’s commitment 70 years ago to create I-70 as an east-west connector in northern Kansas, he said.
“In my view, the construction of Interstate 70 in northern Kansas continues to provide perhaps the greatest economic return on taxpayers’ capital investment in Kansas history,” Schmidt said. “Southern Kansas needs and deserves this same opportunity because in the 21st century, four-lane access is critical to economic growth, especially in manufacturing and agriculture, which are building blocks of the region.”
Additionally, Schmidt proposed an amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would prohibit lawmakers from diverting state highway money to other government priorities.
Former Gov. Sam Brownback, while struggling to maintain an agenda devoted to cutting state income taxes, seized hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the Kansas Department of Transportation to balance its budgets. Other Kansas governors have relied on highway funds.
In 2022, Kelly and the Legislature completed a multi-year process of weaning the state budget from highway funding in an effort to shut down the “Bank of KDOT.”
Kelly’s $520 million package
On Monday, Kelly was in Andover to showcase 11 major highway projects with a total investment of $520 million. The package was part of the bipartisan transportation program named for Eisenhower. Adding this lot to the construction pipeline brought the Kelly administration’s commitment to freeway upgrades and expansion to $1.3 billion.
The highest priority in south-central Kansas in this series of projects was the $230 million East Kellogg’s upgrade along US 54 and US 400 from the Kansas 96 Interchange to the 159th Street interchange. This piece would fit into the concept of a four-lane highway evoked by Schmidt.
“Expanding and upgrading our highways will improve road safety, create good jobs and provide more economic opportunity across Kansas now and in the future,” Kelly said. “These 11 projects demonstrate that investing in transportation benefits our communities, taxpayers and businesses.
Another of the 11 projects on the governor’s list was the $124 million widening of a 7-mile stretch of Kansas 10 in Douglas County to four lanes. Additional transportation projects have been announced for Ellis, Geary, Franklin, Miami, Morris, Osborne, Saline, Sheridan and Wabaunsee counties.
Bob Totten, former executive vice president of the Kansas Contractors Association, said in July that Brownback was improperly relying on revenues earmarked for roads and bridges as a slush fund to pay for his unsuccessful “tax experiment.” Cash transfers from KDOT have decimated the state’s highway construction fund and left the state without sufficient resources to complete essential infrastructure work, he said.
He said that since 1989, a series of Republican and Democratic governors understood that a robust transportation program was needed for the state to grow economically.
“Unfortunately, the only governor from that period that I didn’t mention was Governor Brownback, and unfortunately he had a different idea of how we were supposed to do transportation,” Totten said. “His budget leadership took $1 million a day from KDOT, which hurt the economic benefits from the transportation program.”
Andy Sanchez, executive secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in Kansas, said Brownback caused a $500 million delay in construction projects, caused job losses and unnecessarily increased risk to motorists.
“As our bridges and roads were not maintained or routinely maintained, this was all caused by Sam Brownback, with Derek Schmidt at his side,” he said.
Schmidt, who is from Independence, said the development of a four-lane highway in the southern part of the state was overdue for generations.
“It is time to be bold in this corridor so that we can reap the maximum economic benefits from the power of a four-lane highway by attracting new investment and career opportunities to southern Kansas and developing the existing operations,” he said.
He said the 2020 passage of the state’s Eisenhower Highway Program and the passage last year of federal funding for infrastructure investments would make billions of dollars available for transportation initiatives across the country. Kansas.
All five Republican members of Congress from the state — U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran of Manhattan and Roger Marshall of Great Bend and U.S. Representatives Jake LaTurner of Topeka, Ron Estes of Wichita and Tracey Mann of Salina — voted against the bill. on federal infrastructure by $1.2 trillion. He was backed by U.S. Representative Sharice Davids, a Democrat from Kansas City.
“Expanding and improving roads like US 400 is an economic win for rural and urban parts of our state,” said Estes, who endorsed Schmidt’s infrastructure proposal. “As someone who grew up on a farm in Kansas and now lives in the state’s largest city, I can say with certainty that better connectivity along this critical corridor will deliver benefits far beyond of a simple fluid conduct between the communities.”
LaTurner, who serves the 2nd District that includes southeastern Kansas, said Schmidt’s plan would improve roads, bridges and other infrastructure while boosting local economies. He said eastern Kansas is in “desperate need of real infrastructure reform and investment.”
Jim Zaleski, chief economics officer of Parsons, said a four-lane highway through this town would open up opportunities for economic development. Access to highways is ranked among the top criteria sought by job creators when deciding where to invest, he said.