Turnpike head to resign effective June 15

04/26/2013 6:11 PM

04/26/2013 6:11 PM

Michael Johnston, president and CEO of the Kansas Turnpike Authority for nearly 19 years, said Friday he will resign from his position effective June 15.

Gov. Sam Brownback recently signed into a law a bill that creates a partial merger of KTA and the Kansas Department of Transportation. Under the law, his appointed transportation secretary, Mike King, will also serve the authority’s director of operations.

Johnston had opposed the move, which takes effect July 1.

“I would be less than honest if I said the changes have nothing to do with my decision,” Johnston, a former Democrat legislator from Parsons and a transportation secretary under Gov. Joan Finney, told The Eagle. “But it’s a minor part of the equation.”

He said he turns 68 next month and has talked about retiring.

“I took inventory of a variety of things, talked to my wife and decided this is the right time,” Johnston said. “I want to make it clear I was not asked to leave.”

He said he told the turnpike’s board and employees about his decision on Friday but hasn’t spoken to Brownback about it.

“There’s no reason to talk to the governor,” Johnston said.

Brownback and King see the law as producing savings through efficiencies between the state highway system and the 236-mile toll road. But critics, including some Republicans, have said the turnpike was already being run efficiently.

Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, said combining the agencies is one of “the craziest things I’ve ever seen. I’m sorry we ended up going the way we did.”

Donovan questioned how King could oversee the daily operations of the state highways and the turnpike. He said King may have to hire a CEO to run the turnpike.

Nothing in the law requires the elimination of the authority’s president/CEO position, a KDOT spokeswoman said.

Beyond that, Donovan said, the state was losing a high-quality administrator.

“I’ve told him many times, ‘Michael, for a Democrat, you’re one heck of a guy,’ ” Donovan said. “He’s classy. He’s done a great job.”

Brownback issued a statement that thanked Johnston for his years of service and wished him “all the best in his retirement.”

Johnston declined to speculate on how the partial merger would work out.

“It’s not my deal,” he said.

When Brownback first proposed the move in January, he said $30 million could be saved over 2014 and 2015. No specifics were ever provided.

The legislation includes a provision that turnpike tolls can only be used for operating the turnpike. The law will expire July 1, 2016, giving time to see how well the change is working.

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