KAKE NEWS INVESTIGATES: The cost of flooded roads and bridges

Posted: Updated:
Courtesy Austin Hughes Courtesy Austin Hughes
Flooding at 13th and Maize Road in Wichita on Friday, May 24, 2019 (KAKE) Flooding at 13th and Maize Road in Wichita on Friday, May 24, 2019 (KAKE)
flooding in Reno County - October 2018 flooding in Reno County - October 2018

"It's going to be tough for them.  It's going to be tough," said Craig Dockery, a Wichita area driver about the effort to get Kansas roads back into driving condition after this year's flooding.

As the flood waters recede, state crews face the big task of figuring out  just how much damage they did to your roads, highways, and bridges, and how to pay for fixing them.  It's something the state was already struggling with after years of borrowing money from the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) to pay other bills.  Kansas fell behind in road maintenance.  Now, weeks of flooding have added layers of sometimes severe damage on top of that deficit.

"We had six inches in whatever it was... two days?" said Dockery. 

"I want safe roads," said Valerie Philips, another Kansas driver.

Weeks of flooding left more than 100 miles of Kansas roads and highways under water for days on end, collecting damage unseen until the water receded, sometimes not even until the traffic started moving again.

"When you add water to, add moisture to a pavement and to the supporting structures of that pavement, that's always a bad thing," said Larry Thompson, Director of Operations at KDOT.  "When you start putting loads on that you sometimes have troubles."

KDOT says road crews are just now beginning to get an idea of how bad the damage is this year. 

"There's probably some long lasting effects of all of the water setting up against the roads that we won't know for a while," said Thompson.  

In some cases, that while could be years.  That's what happened after the Flood of '93 as sinkholes caused by flooding didn't show up sometimes until well into 1995.  Most of what they're seeing at the moment is washed out culverts and shoulders, some torn up asphalt.

"It's the infrastructure of our state.  We have got to take care of our state and it needs to be done," said Philips about repairing flood damaged roads.  "Our roads have been looking pitiful for awhile.  This isn't anything new."

Kansas drivers like Philips are worried not just about the condition of the roads and highways they have to drive but also about how the state will pay for fixing them.

"I mean, I don't know.  How do you pay for it?  You can't have bake sales," Philips said.

Dealing with financial crunches for several years, Governor Sam Brownback swept some $3 billion from KDOT to pay bills elsewhere, leading some to refer to the transportation budget as the Bank of KDOT.  While, in some cases, local governments like the City of Wichita and Sedgwick County stepped up to take over road maintenance and expansion, the state still ended up delaying at least 25 planned projects in 2017 and 2018.

But, this year, under a new governor with new tax rules in place and more money coming in, lawmakers left the Bank of KDOT alone.

"I think that the efforts of the legislature is that we've taken from KDOT long enough.  And that we need to get back on track and use those dollars that are in statute for our infrastructure in this state," said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, (R) Sedgwick.  

McGinn is chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and serves on the Joint Legislative Transportation Vision Task Force.

"We should be okay this year,"McGinn said.  "But if we had not put that money in, I think we would have been in a harm's way."

Thompson agreed, saying timing makes a big difference.  With the damage coming right at the end of the current fiscal year, they won't have to start paying for the fix until the next fiscal year, which starts July 1st.

"I mean, we're going to operate within our budget, and we'll take care of this one," Thompson said.

Though the state may have to delay some planned catch-up projects to take care of the more urgent flood damage, this year's disasters aren't likely to impact your taxes.

"Nothing's going to change. As far as people paying taxes, and I certainly pay them too, we won't see any, any change in that," Thompson said.

For folks who've had to drive along flood damaged roads, like Philips, that's good news.

"It's kind of scary and it's very dangerous.  It really is," Philips said about the experience.  "We all use the roads and so they have to be fixed."

While they're still in the early stages of figuring out how much damage this year's floods have done to state roads and highways, many of you are comparing the flooding this year to the Flood of '93.  As of December of 1993, Kansas had sustained about $47 million in damage to roads and bridges. FEMA paid about 90% of those repair costs under special rules. Based on the number of highways flooded this year, the total is likely to be less than half that.  We're still waiting to find out how much FEMA might chip in .

Whatever the final total is, it won't include less tangible costs from lost hours at work and extra long commutes due to the closed, flooded roads this last month.