Chamber leaders from Kansas push for support of massive infrastructure investment

By: - August 6, 2021 3:30 pm

Tracey Osborne Oltjen, president and CEO of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce, talks about the new infrastructure package during a news briefing Friday with Neil Bradley, top right, chief policy officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Curtis Sneden, president of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce. (Screen capture by Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Leaders of the Overland Park and Topeka chambers of commerce say a $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill would provide a once-in-a-lifetime investment in the state’s roads, bridges, airports, broadband, watersheds, and water pipes.

Those long-overdue investments are necessary to keep Kansas competitive in a global economy, they argue, and would benefit education, employment, commerce, agriculture, public safety and health care.

“Right now, we’re the crossroads of America and our economy depends on safe and efficient transport of goods, both into and out of our state,” said Tracey Osborne Oltjen, president and CEO of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce. “Our safe and efficient commute times are a hallmark of our quality of life and economic development.”

Osborne Oltjen and Curtis Sneden, president of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce, praised the bill in a conference call with reporters on Friday. Neil Bradley, chief policy officer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, joined them on the call.

The U.S. Senate plans to vote on the bill on Saturday, and the GOP senators from Kansas have expressed concerns. Roger Marshall said he was opposed to “radical spending” and Jerry Moran objected to the rush to advance legislation before it is fully vetted.

“We all care about the same things,” Osborne Oltjen said. “And that’s access and connectivity, and making sure that our people are safe in their homes, that they can get to work in a safe and efficient manner, and that everyone is able to prosper. And I know that at the end of the day, that’s exactly what our senators care about, too.”

According to a fact sheet from the White House, Kansas would receive $2.6 billion in federal aid for highway projects under the bill, and $225 million for bridge replacements and repairs. The state also would receive at least $273 million for public transit, $100 million to expand broadband internet coverage, and $40 million for electric vehicle charging stations.

Bradley said the cost of the bill is justified by the “long, unmet needs” for infrastructure investments.

“This is the most fiscally responsible infrastructure package in more than a decade that has a chance to become law,” Bradley said. “It’s not perfect. It is difficult to navigate between not increasing user fees, which was a bright line for many Democrats, and not increasing broad-based taxes, which was a red line for many Republicans.”

The package also includes investments of $150 million for airport improvements and $618 million for watershed programs to support crops, livestock and municipal water needs.

“We are acutely aware of the crisis that’s looming over the rapid depletion of our aquifer, and especially in western Kansas,” Sneden said. “So we’re thrilled to see that this bill would invest over $50 billion across the country in water infrastructure, recharging our groundwater storage systems, protecting us against droughts, floods and wildfires.”

Sneden said the infrastructure bill “represents the exact type of investment we need to be making now if we’re going to get to the future that we know is waiting for us out there. Kansans have proven time and again we are up to the challenge of competing on the global stage.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.