Senator blasts Kansas project as waste of stimulus funds

WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden will be in Kansas on Thursday to praise the use of federal economic stimulus funds on the U.S. Highway 69 project.

But Biden, the stimulus' chief cheerleader, also recently acknowledged that the some of the nearly $800 billion being spent around the country on jobs and growth "is going to be wasted."

And that prompted Sen. Pat Roberts, his former Republican colleague from Kansas, to add his two cents to the multibillion-dollar pot:

"I’ve got a good example."

In a letter to the vice president on the eve of his trip to Overland Park, Roberts wrote, “There is a serious situation occurring 140 miles further south on U.S. 69 in Cherokee County, Ks., that is an absolute abuse of taxpayer money and needs your urgent attention."

It has to do with the Kansas Department of Transportation's plans to use $760,000 in stimulus funds to resurface a small section of old state Highway 96 in the state's southeastern corner. It’s a five-mile section of road between the Missouri border east to the town of Crestline, Kan.

The problem, said Roberts, is that the work might have to be done all over again next year.

That's because another nearby stimulus-funded project, costing up to $25 million, could damage the repair work on 96.

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to begin a cleanup project this summer of the state’s old lead-mining region centered near the town of Treece.

Trucks laden with a century’s worth of hazardous waste and debris would use 96, among other routes, to haul the material away. The newly resurfaced road could suffer.

“I am sure you can see the irony,” Roberts said in the letter. “Using stimulus funding to pave this road twice is clearly not in the best interest of American taxpayers, and it does not pass the Kansas common sense test.”

Federal, state and local officials have discussed the issue and are moving ahead anyway, despite possible problems down the road.

EPA spokesman Chris Whitley conceded that the timing of the projects “looks less than graceful.”

“Some might refer to this as the left hand and right hand not knowing what each other is doing,” he said. “In fact, both hands know what the other is doing. If there are repairs that will need to be made because of excessive use of the road, it will get done.”

Kansas Transportation Department spokeswoman Priscilla Petersen said the state does not believe that the trucks hauling hazardous mining waste will do much damage to the newly repaired road. She said the state was more worried that a delay would mean paying more for asphalt later on.

She also said the “timing was awkward,” but added that the state “wouldn’t be proceeding if we didn’t think this was the right and responsible thing to do.”

Roberts has been critical of the EPA for a while. It recently rejected a request from him and two other Kansas Republicans, Sen. Sam Brownback and Rep. Lynn Jenkins, that the agency use some of the stimulus money set aside for cleanup to buy out and relocate the 100 or so remaining residents of Treece.

The state said that would cost $3.5 million

The town was at the center of the lead mining industry until the business disappeared in 1970. The EPA declared the region a Superfund site and hopes to restore the land. But it’s riddled with holes, and critics contend that it’s unsafe because of the subsidence and hidden underground mine shafts.