The Joint Legislative Transportation Vision Task Force met in Newton Oct. 4, hearing testimony on local transportation issues ranging from singular highway projects to passenger and freight rail.
During that meeting, time was spent on the local network — city and county roads and bridges. What Ron Seitz, director of engineering and design for the Kansas Department of Transportation, made clear to the committee is the state will need to look at local roads and needs as they create a new transportation plan.
“It is important to understand that our local system was not designed for the traffic and the situation we are in today,” Seitz said. “It was designed when our state looked a lot different. Most of our state developed in the early 1900s.”
Demographically, population has shifted from rural areas to urban areas. The population of many counties peaked in the early 1900s.
“There are fewer people in rural counties to support the local network,” Seitz said.
Of the state's 105 counties, 69 have a population of less than 10 people per road mile to support the system.That impacts tax revenues and the ability to raise funds to maintain local roads.
The local system features 132,000 miles of roads — 115,000 miles of road maintained by counties and townships and another 17,000 miles of city streets. There are also what are called city connecting links — state highways that run through a town. Those links represent 256 miles of road maintained by cities and 579 miles maintained by the state.
“The local system is a really large system,” Seitz said. “... These roads are essential to our system to our economy. These are the routes that are used for getting crops to the markets, accessing farms and things like that. They are critical to our ag economy.”
Seitz said those roads provide access for emergency services and are important for everyone.
“Nearly all trips that you take either begin or end on a local road,” Seitz said.
Some of those roads are in trouble — according to Norm Bowers, an engineer for the Kansas Association of Counties that testified Oct. 4. Bowers said that according to the American Association Civil of Engineers, 62 percent of local roads are in poor or mediocre condition. The Transportation Research Group rated Kansas the fifth poorest nationally.
“We do not have a highly ranked county road system out there,” Bowers said.
According to Seitz, the local system houses 79 percent of the bridges in Kansas — 19,712 in all. It is here that there is a significant challenge.
According to Seitz, about half of all local bridges are more than 50 years old. About 2,955 bridges are rated as deficient, with only about 15 replaced each year using federal aid. Local agencies are replacing and closing bridges with their own funds, according to Bowers about 115 bridges per year.
“What that means is bridges cannot handle the legal loads allowed on the roads today or they are too narrow for two lanes of traffic,” Seitz said. “And we know the current funding sources are not keeping pace with the needs out there. … We are kind of treading water when it comes to bridges.”
“Counties need help repairing bridges,” Bowers added. “... One fourth of the local bridges are more than 75 years old. Due to the cost of construction, we are not replacing those bridges very fast … that means that those bridges have to last 125 years. In 50 years, if we do not change something, half of those bridges will be closed. That is just the math.”
The solution is what the task force is charged with finding. The task force will be meeting again in Wichita, Hays and Manhattan.