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Kansas House to consider plan for state to take over Kansas Turnpike

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, at 9:13 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, June 17, 2013, at 9 a.m.

The ongoing saga of Gov. Sam Brownback’s attempt to push the Kansas Turnpike under the authority of his transportation department is expected to move to the House floor Thursday or Friday.

But after the House Transportation Committee advanced an amended version of the bill, HB 2234, earlier this week, almost as many questions remain about how the plan will work as when Brownback first mentioned it during his State of the State address on Jan. 15.

How the plan might affect the quality of the turnpike – which some legislators have called the “crown jewel” of the state’s highways – or the toll rates remains unclear

A successful amendment to the bill in the committee struck down Brownback’s plan to have his transportation secretary also serve as the turnpike authority’s CEO and board chair.

Some see that move as ripping the guts out of Brownback’s proposed merger, which he says will save the Kansas Department of Transportation $15 million in 2014 and again in 2015.

“It changed it dramatically,” said Rep Rich Proehl, R-Parsons, who chairs the House’s transportation committee.

But some language in the bill still remains unclear – including whether KDOT could use toll money for things besides turnpike upkeep.

One phrase says the KDOT secretary and turnpike CEO can establish contracts with each other to “provide personnel, equipment or other resources” for the other agency.

“(KDOT Secretary Mike King) stated very bluntly in hearings that it (other resources) didn’t mean money,” Proehl said.

Rep. Tom Sloan, D-Lawrence, who offered the amendment in the transportation committee, said he agreed.

“I’m thinking more in terms of equipment, personnel and land,” Sloan said. “I don’t anticipate that it would mean money. Given both agencies do a lot of bonding, you’d have to be real careful about how you lend money.

“The intent is not to allow them to raid money from the KTA.”

But Michael Johnston, CEO of the turnpike authority for 19 years, said it’s not clear what “other resources” mean.

“Money is a resource,” he said.

The turnpike saw $87 million in toll revenue in 2012. It had $3.9 million in revenue in 1957, its first full year of operation.

KTA has served as an independent state agency since it was established and has always been supported completely by the turnpike’s tolls. State law requires those tolls to be used only for the turnpike.

But Johnston, a former state senator from Parsons and transportation department secretary, said the law can always be changed.

A line in the bill also appears to contradict state law on the use of toll money.

It says one agency can contract with the other for “construction, operation and maintenance of turnpike projects and highways of the state.”

Nothing in the bill – or in King’s testimony before the House transportation committee – explains how the merger would provide a $15 million yearly savings in 2014 and 2015.

“I don’t assume there’s going to be a dollar of savings,” Sloan said. “But can you operate more efficiently? Probably.

“Essentially, I’m trying to avoid comingling of funds from different sources, either taxes on the part of KDOT or tolls on the part of the KTA.

“That’s why the contracting is important.”

KTA has contracted to do work for KDOT in the past, including laying fiber optic cable for the state agency, which Johnston said saved KDOT “hundreds of thousands of dollars” because it didn’t have to pay higher fees to a third party. KTA charges KDOT only the cost of its labor and materials, he said.

While speaking Wednesday at Wichita’s East Rotary Club, Johnston said, “We’ve co-existed for 60 years. I can’t factually tell you what the peanut is. What’s so important about doing this today?”

Sloan said not allowing the KDOT secretary also to serve as the turnpike authority’s CEO “is just practical.”

He said the agency’s secretary has a staff that oversees day-to-day operation of managing the state’s highways.

“But he doesn’t run them,” Sloan said. “The thought that he’s going to run the turnpike authority was a misnomer. He’ll still have to have somebody else do it.”

KDOT’s secretary is already part of the authority’s five-member board, which voted 4-1 to support Brownback’s proposal.

The lone opposition vote came from Mary Turkington, the board’s 87-year-old chairwoman who is on her fourth four-year term and will be retiring April 30. Brownback will appoint her replacement.

Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, was named to the board by Brownback last year. The other two board members are the chairs of both chambers’ transportation committee. Currently those are Proehl and Sen. Mike Petersen, R-Wichita.

Johnston said he was asked by King not to do anything to undermine the bill.

“I don’t want anyone here to leave and suggest that I said the passage of this bill would be detrimental to turnpike travelers,” he told the Rotary group “You may draw that conclusion, but I can’t factually tell you that.

“There are a lot of factual questions. There is limited amount of factual information.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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