For Investments That Stand the Test of Time Use Scenario Planning

Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication known to humankind. It can provide needed context for facts and figures and help listeners understand the options for important decisions that need to be made. In the state of Kansas, storytelling techniques helped transportation officials communicate with stakeholders as part of a process to address a serious backlog of transportation projects and charting a path forward for new projects.

Julie Lorenz explains.

When I returned to KDOT after an absence of a few years, I found the state faced a dilemma. Traditionally, in Kansas, the transportation department develops a list of projects to be delivered over a 10-year period. This helps garner the votes needed from the legislature to pass the program.

However, this process hadn’t worked under the T-Works program spanning 2010 to 2020. This was an $8 billion program that had been approved to provide multimodal economic development opportunities across Kansas. However, significant funds had been removed and many projects on the 10-year list hadn’t been delivered or were on hold.

So, the incoming administration was going to have to figure out how to deliver those projects and identify more projects. My sense, however, was that time had passed. The world changes too quickly. I just said, I don’t think we’re good enough to identify 10 years of new projects and on top of that deliver 29 of the previous projects that we hadn’t gotten to under the previous program.

So we embarked on a series of scenario planning workshops across the state. The concept was to do these as a really powerful combination of facts and story creation. We had a factbook, and in that book we looked at more than just transportation. We looked at demographics and economics so that we could understand shifts in education, in population, and the various sectors that require support from transport.

We went around the state, and we talked with folks. We said: Here are the facts that we see, the shifts that we see. Now let’s imagine over the next 20 years what might happen. Using that framework, we created three stories. These stories were intended to depart from a classic scenario planning exercise.

Story one was that regional hubs save the day. That is to say, the regions around population centers like Hayes or Garden City, for example, would be well supported with those larger communities serving as hubs. They would have some sense of responsibility for supporting the smaller, outlying communities. You wouldn’t make all improvements equally across the board.

Passing lanes is a good example. In these listening sessions, we discussed the fact that everybody wants four lanes everywhere. But let’s look at reality. We just can’t afford to build four lanes everywhere. Is there a better solution?

Passing lanes emerged as an option for immediate safety improvements for the long term. In places where you can afford to put in four lanes, absolutely, you want to do that. But passing lanes can be part of the solution.

The second story revolved around how Big Agriculture and Tech can save the day. And the third story was about how extreme climate change is bringing folks from both coasts into the interior of the country. This migration is not evenly distributed because many are deciding to land in Kansas City or Wichita or some other larger communities. This is a trend that will impact transportation planning for our state.

And then we asked: What investments across these various scenarios would make sense? Broadband, for example, was a consideration for story two. Broadband made sense so folks could get to the internet — the international information highway, so to speak. It became obvious broadband would be a good investment across all those sectors. Telemedicine’s relationship to broadband was an important part of this story. Also, we had conversations about the declining populations in schools in certain areas around the state. In those areas, broadband access will be vital for options to deliver remote education. Now, we went through this exercise in 2019, but after COVID-19 hit, this got to be really interesting.

In our climate change story, resiliency was really important. In these conversations, we talked about drones and what that might make aviation look like in the future.

What we arrived at was this idea that we need to be more responsive to our community. So, a 10-year list may not be best with the evolution of needs that we’re seeing. Instead of a 10-year list, we will identify projects every two years based on what we can afford as a state. And for the first time ever, we are going to invest in broadband as a state.

We are going to do this as a cost share program, where if communities can bring a little bit of money to the table, the state will help you get your project over the finish line. It could be a state bridge or a local bridge. It could be a sidewalk that is helpful to mobility.

All this storytelling was the foundation for the Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Program, or IKE as it came to be known. IKE was passed on a Thursday at 2 p.m. in March 2020 with four hours to spare before the legislature adjourned for COVID. It had 94% support on both sides of the aisle, which is just remarkable.

We got this done by understanding that sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. We used facts and gave people time to absorb the shift in context, to imagine for a moment what they liked about that world and what they didn’t like about those worlds, because nothing is perfect. Then they would identify investments that would make the good stuff better and to try and mitigate the bad conditions. That was how we arrived at the IKE program and why it was so strongly supported.

All this happened because a lot of pieces came together. I think that’s one of the best examples of effective policy development. Now Kansas is into a third year of implementation. All those programs that were stood up in 2020 — the rolling program — are enjoying great success. The cost share program is wildly popular. So those are the kinds of things that, when you are either in a role as a decision maker or when advising your clients, you have to think about what you are really trying to achieve. How are you bringing folks along so that nothing is being forced upon them? The key is to set the conditions so they can understand and really be able to voice their own views.