PITTSBURG, Kan. — Kansas Attorney General and Republican Nominee for Governor Derek Schmidt provided additional details Wednesday about his plan if elected to prioritize a four-lane highway connecting Southeast Kansas, Wichita, and Southwest Kansas.
Schmidt mentioned his support for such a project in an interview with the Morning Sun in late June, and earlier this month told a local audience that if elected governor, he will provide the leadership to make the project an economic development and transportation priority for Kansas. He expanded on his proposal in a campaign press release Wednesday.
“President Eisenhower was visionary in launching the interstate highway system less than 70 years ago,” Schmidt 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. 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. The expansion of four-lane access connecting Southwest Kansas, Wichita, and Southeast Kansas with the interstate highway system in the east — including completion of the U.S. 69 project — is generations overdue. This will be a priority for me as governor.”
Schmidt’s campaign release noted that a Southern Kansas four-lane highway “has been discussed for decades” and that “major portions of the project already are planned, budgeted, underway or have been completed.” The Kansas Democratic Party was quick to accuse Schmidt of taking credit for work that has already been ongoing during Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration.
“Once again, we’re thrilled that Derek Schmidt supports the work Governor Kelly has done for the state of Kansas, and glad to see he is trying to make up for the damage he caused by standing behind Sam Brownback as he drained the Kansas Highway Fund of $2 billion,” KDP spokesperson Emma O’Brien said in a statement later Wednesday. “While Governor Kelly is busy at work, Schmidt is running on anyone’s track record but his own, trying to take credit for projects already in the works, and failing to have a plan to pay for it. When will Schmidt release an idea of his own?”
Schmidt noted in his release that the combination of the Kansas Legislature in 2020 enacting the Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Plan and federal enactment last year of the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will make significant transportation funding available in coming years. “Therefore, now is the time to prioritize a transformative statewide transportation project like a southern Kansas four-lane highway,” the release said.
Schmidt's campaign noted some examples of “major portions of the project already are planned, budgeted, underway or have been completed,” such as the Kellogg freeway project through Wichita, which has been completed after decades of work, and now is slated for extension east to Andover. Similarly, US-400 is four lanes going west from Wichita to Kingman, and other sections of US-400 and US-54 have been or are currently being upgraded to four lanes in Southwest Kansas, the release said. In Southeast Kansas, the state already owns the four-lane right-of-way along US-400 from Wichita to at least Parsons, and plans are in the works to complete the US 69 four-lane connection to I-44.
“What’s missing is the leadership that puts these pieces together, fills the gaps, and commits to getting the overall project done,” Schmidt’s campaign said in its press release Wednesday.
“This is a situation where the whole will be far more beneficial to Kansas than the sum of the parts,” Schmidt said, noting that truck traffic along the route is increasing because of major investments such as the Bartlett Grain soybean crushing facility near Cherryvale, and that other projects are under consideration at the Great Plains Industrial Park in Parsons. “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,” Schmidt said. “The entire state will benefit for generations to come from bold leadership that brings people together to make this a priority and get it done.”
Various stakeholders and supporters of Schmidt’s plan also commented on the proposal.
"Eastern Kansas is in desperate need of real infrastructure reform and investment,” U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-Kansas 2nd District) said in the release from Schmidt’s campaign. “Derek Schmidt's plan will focus on improving roads, bridges, and other crucial infrastructure projects across our state. This project will expand highways, improve safety on our roads, and boost our local economies. I am proud to support Derek Schmidt's infrastructure plan and look forward to helping implement it when he is governor."
Steve Sloan, president of Midwest Minerals in Pittsburg, also weighed in on the plan.
"Derek Schmidt with this plan provides the type of bold, visionary leadership Kansas needs to grow and thrive,” Sloan said. “Connecting a completed US-69 Highway with four lane access across the Southeastern region of our state would be transformative for Pittsburg and the entire Southeastern Kansas region."
Another project stakeholder who commented on the proposal in the release from Schmidt’s campaign was Jim Zaleski, economic development director for the City of Parsons.
“Four-lane highway access through Parsons would open up immense opportunities for economic development,” Zaleski said. “Highway access is consistently ranked among the top criteria job creators look for when deciding where to invest, which is why growing Highway 400 to four lanes has been a major priority for Parsons for a long time. Derek's plan would be a game changer for our community and for Kansas.”
Schmidt also said a key to making major projects like a southern Kansas four-lane highway a reality is long-term stability for state transportation funding, and that as governor, he will propose a state constitutional amendment to protect transportation funding from being diverted to other priorities.
“Decades ago, Kansas voters decided to separate money for long-term investment in transportation projects from annual state operating needs by constitutionally committing the state motor fuels tax solely to transportation,” Schmidt said. “That policy is sensible but it needs to be reinforced to permanently prevent all sources of transportation money from being diverted to other purposes.”
The Kansas Democratic Party, however, said that Schmidt’s constitutional amendment proposal comes “after he stood by Sam Brownback as he tanked the state’s economy, underfunded public schools, and stole $2 billion from the Kansas Highway Fund to fill budget holes caused by Brownback’s ‘tax experiment.’ Meanwhile, Governor Kelly closed the ‘Bank of KDOT,’ ending the extraordinary transfers from the State Government Fund to other departments. This has allowed investments in roads and bridges, with more than 1,000 new infrastructure projects started since Kelly took office and the completion of all outstanding T-WORKS projects abandoned during the Brownback era.”
The release from Schmidt's campaign, meanwhile, framed the situation differently, saying that in 2010, the Legislature and Gov. Mark Parkinson significantly increased the amount of state sales tax money committed to transportation, and that decision put annual transportation funding in direct and ongoing competition with other state priorities such as education and social services. During recent administrations of both Democratic and Republican governors, that resulted in money that had been pledged to highways being diverted to other purposes, the release said.
“Funding instability was a problem created with bipartisan support, and I hope it can be solved with bipartisan support as well,” Schmidt said. “The ‘Bank of KDOT’ needs to be permanently closed.”
A copy of Schmidt’s proposed constitutional amendment is available online at schmidtforkansas.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Transportation-trust-fund.pdf.