Legislators propose yet another raid on the “Bank of KDOT,” planning to sweep around $200 million from the transportation fund again next year.

We understand that they are desperate in their attempts to once again balance a state budget with lower revenue and an ever-increasing demand, but this Dalton-gang treatment of the Department of Transportation needs to stop. 

The money legislators take comes from sales taxes, and these continual shifts leave the road fund depending on fuel taxes and motor vehicle fees. That has bad implications for the future, because one important reason the state tried to build a broad base for the road fund is that fuel taxes are no longer a dependable source of income.

Already, we see deteriorating roads as Kansas backs off from its long-time plan to keep our highways in good repair, something that dates back to the administration of Gov. Mike Hayden in the 1980s.

Gov. Hayden arrived in Topeka promising to return Kansas roads to their former glory, and he did, but he lost his race for re-election at least partly because he’d raised the gas tax to do it.

His was the first comprehensive transportation plan in a series that brought Kansas near the top in road condition, and it set the standard for governors (and legislators) to follow. One change was to give the transportation fund a share of sales-tax revenue which, until recent years, has all gone into the state’s general fund.

That is important for several reasons. State fuel taxes, levied on gasoline and diesel fuel, have their limits. Since they are set by the gallon, they don’t rise with inflation or with oil prices. To the contrary, they tend to shrink when people drive smaller cars or use less fuel.

“Alternative-fuel” vehicles, especially electric-powered cars and hybrids, pay little or no road tax, basically just license fees, but they reduce gas-tax revenue even more. The government subsidizes production and sale of these “efficient” vehicles and environmental groups resist state attempts to tax them. 

Bottom line, if the state has to depend on fuel taxes to build roads, we’re not going to like the results. Kansas can get by this way for a couple of years – and one proposal would raise fuel taxes to boost road repairs – but in the long run, the transportation fund will run out if we don’t figure out some way to spread the burden across all vehicle owners.

Projections show more travel, and especially more and heavier truck traffic, on all our roads as the population and commerce grow over the next 20 years. We’ll need more and better roads, and that means money. The Legislature needs to be careful not to cripple the state’s transportation program even as it tries to restore financial sense with a balanced budget and tries to meet all needs. 

We can’t finance the state from the “Bank of KDOT” and still have a transportation program. — Steve Haynes, The Oberlin Herald

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