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Highway to Hell

About a month before the election last year, Governor Sam Brownback made an announcement in Arma, KS that, at the time, I openly called bullshit on. It looked like a publicity stunt, and it smelled like a publicity stunt. His opponent, Paul Davis, even made an incredibly prescient statement that “the enhancement project could unravel if the Brownback administration withdrew funding from the state’s T-Works transportation program to fill budget gaps left by unexpected revenue shortfalls associated with the governor’s income tax cuts.”

The reason I said that, was because Crawford county has been begging for the completion of the 69 expansion for quite some time, and it’s also one of the largest Democrat concentrations outside of Lawrence, Kansas City, and Wichita. However, there’s been a very vocal debate over the issue from folks along 400 Highway. The timing of the announcement was far too convenient to be anything but pandering. As Davis worried, Brownback did exactly what was predicted in raiding the highway fund (though the administration has maintained that planned expansion projects won’t be impacted… for now).

I admit, once the 69 expansion from Ft. Scott to KC was complete, I greatly enjoyed setting my cruise control slightly above right at 75 and sailing on up north on trips. And seeing that extended down to the Oklahoma border to I-44 would be just grand as well. But, is it actually needed? Thare are many things the folks of SEK want, the expansion among them. Wants and needs are often confused though.

For my money, while the short stretch of two-lane highway here can be a little frustrating from time to time, it’s hardly a major headache. The condition of the road itself is also not terrible at the moment, and what little congestion trouble there is from time to time could be solved through the addition of passing lanes. There’s also a really bad tradeoff – 400. See, 400, in my opinion, is in need of substantially more attention than the small stretch of 69 they’re looking at. Folks along the 400 corridor have been arguing exactly that for some time. Their argument is enhanced by the fact that K7 is another SEK highway that’s also on launching pad for an expansion.

The thing is, discussions of four lane highway from Pittsburg to KC make for sexy soundbites and marketing. But travel west along 400 sometime, headed out of Pittsburg, past Parsons and the Cherryvale turn off, on up towards Neodesha and Fredonia, and it’s a nightmare of two-lane road with not a passing lane to be had, mix and match patchwork, aging bridges, and a terribly thought out roundabout at Fredonia (seriously, I feel so bad for the truckers that have to navigate that super-narrow curve). The dream of four lanes from Pittsburg to Wichita isn’t as economically exciting though, and is a much larger investment without nearly as many important votes between the two. And that’s the reality of why the idea is shown the door over and over. It’s also worth questioning if the choice of a two lane bypass of Parsons hasn’t hurt expansion efforts, due to resistance to expanding a relatively new stretch of road.

“I am very concerned that the governor will rob funds from transportation if he is re-elected.” Former Senator Bob Marshall; Oct. ’14

So here’s the kick in the balls for this: 400 is screwed now. Since it wasn’t already on the roadmap, you can bet they are now pretty much a decade or more from ever seeing meaningful work done in SEK (I’d love for someone who’s sat in on those various planning meetings to chime in if they know more specifically on that matter). The money that Brownback took out of KDOT will specifically impact preservation and maintenance efforts, both of which 400 is in dire need of. They’ll be patching the road with mud and grass before long. And while the statement so far is that current expansion projects won’t be impacted by the highway fund siphoning and budget cuts, really that’s just lip service. It takes but a pen stroke and a signature to change that. Work won’t begin on the 69 expansion until 2017, and in the meantime, predictions clearly show us with budget shortfall after budget shortfall. Money’s gotta come from somewhere.

By the time all is said and done, at best we have an expansion done that wasn’t really needed, and at worst no headway is made at all – except that Brownback got to win the brownie points for telling SEK that 69 would get expanded right before the election, knowing that he had his fingers crossed behind his back the whole time.

(Photo Credit: CC by 2.0 puuikibeach)