Schmidt proposes construction of four-lane highway linking Pittsburg to Garden City, Liberal

GOP candidate channeling Eisenhower’s vision of I-70 as east-to-west passage

By: - August 17, 2022 9:01 am
Derek Schmidt, a Republican candidate for governor, proposed construction of a four-lane highway linking southwest Kansas to southeast Kansas via Wichita to promote economic development in that broad region. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Derek Schmidt, a Republican candidate for governor, proposed construction of a four-lane highway linking southwest Kansas to southeast Kansas via Wichita to promote economic development in that broad region. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Republican governor candidate Derek Schmidt proposed Wednesday construction of four-lane highway connecting southwest and southeast Kansas by way of Wichita to promote the kind of economic return on investment Interstate 70 delivered for decades to the state’s northern tier.

Schmidt, who is challenging Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly in November, said significant portions of the project existed or were planned, budgeted or under construction. The idea would be to connect U.S. 54 at Liberal and U.S. 400 in Dodge City with the four-lane highway extending west to Kingman from Wichita, link to the Kellogg corridor and an extension to Andover, before following U.S. 400 through Parsons to U.S. 69 near Pittsburg.

His campaign statement didn’t include a preliminary cost for the transportation initiative, but Schmidt vowed to make a priority of pulling together each of the components and closing gaps necessary to complete the vision.

It would be modeled after President Dwight Eisenhower’s commitment 70 years ago to creating I-70 as an east-to-west connector in the northern tier of Kansas, he said.

“In my view, the construction of Interstate 70 across northern Kansas continues to provide perhaps the biggest economic return on capital investment of taxpayer dollars in Kansas history,” Schmidt said. “Southern Kansas needs and deserves that same opportunity because in the 21st century, four-lane access is essential for economic growth, particularly in manufacturing and agriculture, which are staples of the region.”

In addition, 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 slashing state income taxes, seized hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the Kansas Department of Transportation to balance his budgets. Other Kansas governors have relied on highway funds, but not to the level perfected by Brownback.

In 2022, Kelly and the Legislature completed a multiyear process of weaning the state budget off highway funding in a move to close the “Bank of KDOT.”


Kelly’s $520M package

On Monday, Kelly was in Andover to outline 11 major highway projects with a total investment of $520 million. The package was part of the bipartisan transportation program named in honor of Eisenhower. Adding this batch to the construction pipeline brought to $1.3 billion the Kelly administration’s commitment to highway modernization and expansion.

The highest priority in south-central Kansas in this round of projects was the $230 million upgrade of east Kellogg along U.S. 54 and U.S. 400 from the Kansas 96 interchange to the 159th Street interchange. This piece would fit into the four-lane highway concept raised by Schmidt.

“Expanding and modernizing our highways will improve roadway safety, create good jobs and deliver more economic opportunities across Kansas, both 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 of the governor’s list was the $124 million widening to four lanes of a seven-mile stretch on Kansas 10 in Douglas County. Additional transportation projects were 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 inappropriately relied on revenue earmarked for roads and bridges as a slush fund to pay for his unsuccessful “tax experiement.” Cash transfers from KDOT decimated the state’s highway construction fund and left the state without sufficient resources to complete essential infrastructure jobs, he said.

He said that since 1989 a series of Republican and Democratic governors had understood a robust transportation program was necessary for the state to grow economically.

“Unfortunately, the only governor in that time frame that I didn’t mention was Governor Brownback and unfortunately he had a different idea about how we were supposed to go in regards to transportation,” Totten said. “His budget leadership took a million dollars a day from KDOT, which hurt the economic benefits derived from the transportation program.”

Andy Sanchez, executive secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in Kansas, said Brownback caused the delay of $500 million in construction projects, triggered job losses and unnecessarily placed motorists at greater risk.

“As our bridges and roads went without maintenance and routine upkeep, it was all caused by Sam Brownback, with Derek Schmidt at his side,” he said.


‘Economic win’

Schmidt, who is from Independence, said development of four-lane highway across the southern part of the state was generations overdue.

“It’s time to be bold in this corridor so we can get the maximum economic benefit from the power of a four-lane highway in attracting new investment and career opportunities in southern Kansas and expanding existing operations,” he said.

He said adoption in 2020 of the state’s  Eisenhower highway program and passage last year of federal funding for infrastructure investments would make billions of dollars available for transportation initiatives in Kansas.

The state’s five Republican members of Congress — U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran of Manhattan and Roger Marshall of Great Bend and U.S. Reps. Jake LaTurner of Topeka, Ron Estes of Wichita and Tracey Mann of Salina — voted against that $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill. It was supported by U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat from Kansas City.

“Expanding and enhancing roads like U.S. 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 Kansas farm and now lives in the state’s largest city, I can say with certainty that having better connectivity along this critical corridor will provide benefits well beyond just a smooth drive between communities.”

LaTurner, who serves the 2nd District that includes southeast Kansas, said Schmidt’s plan would improve roads, bridges and other infrastructure while boosting local economies. He said eastern Kansas was “in desperate need of real infrastructure reform and investment.”

Jim Zaleski, economic director in Parsons, said a four-lane highway through that city would open up opportunity for economic development. Highway access is ranked among the top criteria job creators looked for when deciding where to invest, he said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.