By land or by air, traversing the sunflower state is fast and efficient. but it's the quality of those assets, not just their numbers, that impresses.
The federal interstate highway system in Kansas is both the heart and soul—and while invoking anatomical terms—the backbone of a system that moves freight and people across a span of 82,000 square miles. While there are ample rail and air assets (more on those in a minute), the four-lane (or more), divided, limited access federal system consists of:
• Interstate 70, which nearly spans the continent, carrying traffic from Kansas City, Mo., on the eastern border to the Colorado state line, 424 miles to the west.
• Interstate 35, running just over 235 miles from South Haven (on the Oklahoma border) to the west side of Downtown Kansas City, Mo.
• Interstate 35 runs up the middle of the state to the north through Wichita in south-central Kansas and crosses I-70 and continues on to Canada.
• The various connecting “belt” interstate stretches around the Kansas City and Wichita areas, plus the 50-mile spur known as I-335, linking Emporia in east-central to I-70 in Topeka.
Supplement those with more than three dozen federal highways that, while lacking interstate-system designation, often provide interstate-quality driving and shipping conditions—in many cases, at least four lanes, divided, with limited access. That asphalt web, in total, accounts for thousands of high-speed lane miles.
Running like layers of a cake across the state, they include (from north to south) U.S. 36, closely following the northern border with Nebraska, U.S. 24, about halfway between that highway and I-70, U.S. 50 from the Colorado border in southwest Kansas to Emporia, before turning northeast to Kansas City; U.S. 54, from Liberal in the far southwest to the Missouri border, and U.S. 160, calving off from U.S. 54 in the southwest to run north of the Oklahoma border all the way to southwest Missouri.
Wherever you are in the state, you’re either close to a high-speed route or close to a link that quickly connects to one. The nice thing about all of those connections, though, is that they are generally perceived as being among the best highways in the nation.
Consumer Reports, in a 2022 survey of business owners, ranked Kansas No. 6 nationwide for the quality of its roads. After years of belt-tightening at the statehouse, draining funds from the Transportation Department to shore up other needs, Kansas has resumed spending with solid results. The Tax Policy Center reports that the state spent slightly more than $626 per capita on highways last year, compared to the national average of $616.
Two large airports—Kansas City International and Dwight D. Eisenhower National in Wichita—provide ample passenger service, often as connecting flights to larger markets.
KCI enplaned nearly 5 million passengers last year, while Wichita’s main airport handled 1.54 million. Each site also has a prominent and growing footprint in the air cargo space. KCI’s much more voluminous cargo traffic exceeds 121,000 tons annually.
The heavy lifting of transportation, of course, is the rail system that supports 14 freight carriers. Nearly 30 million tons of goods ride the 4,748 miles of rails that crisscross the state. Not only do those shippers account for a large workforce—4,296 employees as of 2021—but they offer some of the best blue-collar compensation packages in the state: an average of more than $134,000 in 2021.
Class I railroads—four of them operate in the state—accounted for 3,801 miles of the track system, while three regional railroads operated on 1,503 miles of steel rail. Seven short-line railroads accounted for slightly less than 600 miles of track.