Eagle editorial: Is turnpike merger wise?

02/03/2013 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:14 AM

It may make sense to merge the Kansas Turnpike Authority with the Kansas Department of Transportation, particularly if it really can save the state $15 million a year without degrading the quality of the turnpike. But lawmakers are understandably skeptical about those savings and about whether the real motive of the merger is to divert toll revenue to help cover state budget shortfalls.

Gov. Sam Brownback proposed the merger during his State of the State address, saying the two highway departments were one of the clearest examples of duplication in state government.

“It is time we realize the efficiencies to be gained by placing these two operations under the same umbrella,” he said.

His budget projects those savings to be $30 million over the next two fiscal years, with that money transferred to the state general fund to be spent elsewhere. But it’s unclear where the savings are coming from.

Brownback has noted how the KTA and KDOT both have salt storage facilities in Emporia. There also might be some efficiencies by combining work on snow removal or road design, though the same work still has to be done.

But does that really add up to $15 million a year in savings?

KTA officials note that there is already a lot of cooperation between the two agencies, and a merger isn’t required to increase that. In fact, state law already requires cooperation.

Lawmakers also question whether it makes sense to get rid of KTA, which uses no state tax money and has kept the turnpike in top condition since it opened in 1956. “We really need to be very careful with the changes that we make,” said Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita.

The Kansas trucking industry, which accounts for 39 percent of turnpike revenues, also is concerned. Tom Whitaker, executive director of the Kansas Motor Carriers Association, wrote in a message to his membership that the change “would subject the turnpike to the bureaucracy of a state agency, as opposed to the business model used by KTA, and diverts highway user fees generated through tolls to the state general fund.”

That said, there also has been some criticism over the years about a lack of transparency at KTA. And cost never seems like much of an object for KTA, which has a sizable cash reserve.

Combining KTA and KDOT might save significant money. But the administration needs to spell out those savings and show that they are real.

If the merger really will save $15 million a year, and those savings won’t hurt the quality of the turnpike, then great. But if the savings are a lot lower, it doesn’t make sense to “fix” something that isn’t broken.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee

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