Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly talks U.S. 69 toll lanes, pandemic recovery and vaccines in exclusive SM Post interview

In an exclusive interview with the Shawnee Mission Post on Tuesday, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly shared her thoughts about the U.S. 69 express toll lanes, the state of Kansas' unemployment program and what school will look like this fall as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic still linger. File photo.

Cost sharing for the U.S. 69 express toll lanes, post-pandemic economic recovery efforts and a revamped unemployment assistance program were some of the highlights in a Shawnee Mission Post interview with Gov. Laura Kelly on Tuesday afternoon.

The governor’s press staff arranged the phone interview, but the Post came up with the questions centered around issues facing Johnson County, particularly in the areas of transportation, economic development and education.

Here’s the list of the Post’s questions and Kelly’s responses, some of which have been edited for clarity and space:

Transportation

69 highway toll lanes
Gov. Laura Kelly said the express toll lanes on U.S. 69 is an innovative solution to the growing congestion along the stretch of highway in Overland Park. Photo credit Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3.

What’s your opinion on the history of the U.S. 69 congestion and the plan to add express toll lanes?

We know that U.S. 69 is the most heavily trafficked road that we have in the state of Kansas. So it was imperative that we come up with a solution to that problem.

With Overland Park and KDOT working together, they were able to come up with a very creative, innovative, first-of-its-kind-in-Kansas solution. So, instead of just adding more and more lanes, one of the lanes will become a toll lane, and people have the option of using the toll lane during really heavily trafficked times or using the two remaining free lanes.

We’ve never done this before in Kansas. We couldn’t have done it without the cooperation and the investment on the part of Overland Park. We’re excited to get this project going and cut that ribbon.

We’ve heard some concerns from Overland Park residents — and during our local candidate forums — who don’t really like the idea of the city contributing to a state project. How do you think we should balance the state’s responsibility for state-managed highways and infrastructure with asking our local cities to contribute to those projects?

We really approached the whole comprehensive transportation plan differently than the three previous 10-year plans that have been in place in Kansas since I think 1989. We wanted to get more bang for our buck, be able to do projects more quickly and be able to be more responsive to community needs.

And one of the ways that we were able to do that was to come up with this cost-sharing approach to the highways projects, so that we allow locals to make contributions to the cost so that we will be able to proceed.

Too many things have gotten caught up or canceled because the state didn’t have the money in previous years. So we wanted to come up with a way that was sustainable over the long haul, and working together with our local units.

Now, the other reality: Even though this is a state highway and the city of Overland Park is making a contribution to it, the fact is it will be paid for by the tolls collected over time. It will be people from way past Overland Park making contributions to this project over time.

I think it’s not only a fair way to do business, but it’s a smart way to do business, by combining forces and being able to do more, more rapidly.

KDOT has mentioned the interchange of I-435, I-35 and K-10 being one big focus moving forward. Besides that, what other transportation priorities do you foresee coming up for Johnson County?

You’ve got several things that need some attention. You’ve got the I-35 area around 151st to 159th. KDOT gets constant complaints about that segment of the roadway, so we’ll be coming in and patching it up right now and trying to buy some time until that project can be put into the pipeline for reconstruction.

And we’ve got some other things like that off U.S. 169, against around 151st Street. We’ve got some overpass bridges that will be looked at, and some intersections further south around Gardner.

Economic development

Johnson County vaccine clinic
Vaccinations are the state’s key focus on the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kelly said. Above, JCDHE’s more permanent mass clinic opened at a Lenexa warehouse in late March and in recent weeks has been accepting walk-ins from newly eligible children ages 12 to 15. File photo.

What are you seeing across Kansas regarding the state’s continuing COVID-19 response?

First, let me tell you that economic development in the state of Kansas is at record levels. In 2020, we set the record for new capital investment, new business investment, in Kansas — I think it was about $2.5 billion. We’ve almost reached that point again here in 2021: I think we’re about maybe $100 million short, we’re at about $2.4 billion.

So we will break our own record again this year. When we add it up from the time that I took office, we’ve captured over $6 billion now of new business investment coming into the state. That translates into 26,000 to 27,000 new jobs, so pandemic or no pandemic, we really have been very successful in growing our state and shoring up our economy.

We have had a really aggressive response to COVID since, what, a year ago, March, when the [Kansas] Department of Commerce implemented the HIRES grants, a grant program they put in place in 48 hours, versus the usual amount of time it would take a state agency to get something like that done, so that we could get immediate support and relief out to the hospitality industry in particular, because they got hit hard and fast.

So, we did everything we could as quickly as we could and continued to support that industry and others that have been impacted.

For instance, I think Kansas was the only state where we did not have to actually shut down any of our meat-packing operations. There was some slowdown of production, but no complete closure of the structure like other states saw. And that was because of our aggressive response and our calling in of SWAT team from the CDC to go out into our meat-packing plants and help them establish protocols.

I think we’ve mitigated a lot of economic damage that could have been caused, by our rapid, and aggressive response to it. And we’re seeing that, not only in the new business investment that we’re getting into the state of Kansas, but also if you saw our last revenue report, the revenue coming into the state both individual and in businesses, has been quite substantial. That’s an indication that our economy is in good shape.

With the rise in the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus, can we expect new statewide restrictions such as mask mandates?

I don’t think you’re going to see any of that kind of stuff happen. If you remember, the [Kansas] Legislature and attorney general decided that they did not want me to have that kind of authority.

But even if I had that kind of authority, I think the reality is, what we need is for people to get vaccinated.

We know the vaccines work. We know that even where the Delta variant has moved in aggressively, that people who are vaccinated don’t get the virus, and that if they happen to get it, they don’t get as sick and they don’t go into the hospital.

Our focus is really getting people vaccinated, because that ultimately is the only thing that is going to keep Kansans safe and keep them alive, keep our schools open and our businesses open.

How is the state planning to use its share of the American Rescue Plan to help communities such as those in Johnson County?

We plan to use it very wisely and to work with our local units of government. We want to partner with them so that we make investments where we get the best return on our dollars.

We need to remember that this is one-time money, so we need to be looking towards investments that won’t require ongoing support beyond the four years that this program will be active.

So we’ll be looking at infrastructure projects, and by that, I don’t mean necessarily the road and bridges kind of infrastructure, but certainly broadband and wastewater treatment centers, the kinds of things that cost a lot of money to get done, because we just don’t have access to those kinds of funds.

Information technology systems, cybersecurity, and then any bricks and mortar that would be a good investment now leading into the future to do things like maybe build a really robust early childhood system and centers in some of our communities and some of our businesses so that they’re there for us to then use when we are finished with the ARPA money.

We’ve heard about some of the challenges, with the delays and technical mishaps, of the state’s enhanced unemployment system during the pandemic. Are those getting worked out? What hope do we have for the people who are still waiting? Do you plan to continue that program?

We were working diligently before the pandemic hit, implementing the modernization program that was initiated actually during the Sebelius and Parkinson administration and then terminated under the Brownback administration, within weeks of his having taken office.

So we knew that project needed to be done, so we had started on it as soon as I got into office. The pandemic hit, and we were not able to continue with that because you can’t fix an airplane when it’s in the air. So we had to turn our attention to patching up what we had and getting through the incredible amount of applications that we received.

No doubt, there were lots of glitches, because not only did the number of applications just soar from having been at the lowest rate in the history of the state to astronomically beyond the highest number for the state.

Add on top of that, those federal enhancement programs were terrific for people, but a nightmare for states, particularly states with antiquated systems like Kansas, to implement. Every time the federal government would create a new unemployment program and hand it off to all 50 states to implement, all 50 states had to create platforms to be able to administer that. That takes months.

There were a whole lot of things that played into all of those glitches. Yes, we have worked very diligently to remove those barriers and to be responsive. We had 20 people on telephones in the call center when the pandemic hit. We now have over 650. So we have really ramped up our response team.

And, quite honestly, the numbers have shrunk significantly. There are still some who are caught up in the system, but far fewer.

Johnson County has one of the highest vaccination rates in the state. Should we be worried about our neighboring counties’ low vaccination rates?

I know that the health officials in Johnson County and in Wyandotte County, and then going south to Crawford County are vigilant. They are very aware of what is just across the border. I think they’re doing what they can to make sure that they get these vaccines to their people to protect them from what can come across the border.

Unfortunately, some of it already has — particularly in the southeast portion of the state —and we’re working with them to ensure that we get those vaccines out and get them into arms as quickly as we possibly can. I would encourage people in your area who have not been vaccinated yet to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Education

Kelly said the state is working with local public health departments to ensure students stay in the classroom this fall. Above, masked middle schoolers at Mill Creek last school year. Photo courtesy USD 232. File photo.

Again, with the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus on the rise, do you foresee schools needing additional restrictions in place when school starts? What do you think parents can expect this fall?

I know that all of our school districts are working now to set up the protocols that they will have in place for kids coming back in the classroom next month. But I also think that they are keeping their eye on the variant in particular and will modify protocols should the need arise.

Again, our health officers are working with our local public health departments who have been working with our school districts to ensure that everybody has what they need to make school as safe as it possibly can be.

Everybody wants kids back in the classroom full time, with a teacher at the head of the class actually teaching face to face. So we’ll do everything we can to ensure that that happens, including again, hosting vaccination clinics in our schools. Right now, we can vaccinate 12- to 18-year-olds, and our school districts will be having those clinics set up in the hopes of getting as many kids as possible vaccinated.

We’re starting to talk about the history of the Shawnee Indian Mission in Fairway. How can we agree on our history as a state? How are we able to have some of these tough conversations about our history as a community, without being divided? How would you like to see our local communities and schools approach this?

I’m a big believer in teaching the facts, and I believe that that’s what’s been happening in our schools. It doesn’t mean that new facts don’t come to light. And when they do, I fully trust that our school districts and our state board of education will incorporate those facts into our curriculum.

I think we just have to continue to have openness and transparency and ongoing dialogue. But I also think we have to be realistic enough to know that there are external forces out there who will continue to work to make the division even deeper.

I think by sticking to the facts, sticking to what’s real, will it end the divisiveness? No, probably not. But hopefully, it will ensure that what’s getting taught is based on reality and facts, and not political ideologies or convenience.