If anything was clear about the confusing Statehouse debate over whether to merge the Kansas Turnpike Authority and the Department of Transportation in full or in part, it was legislative intent: To their credit, lawmakers didn’t want to do anything to wreck the turnpike, the 236-mile toll road through south-central and eastern Kansas that has served drivers and the state’s economy so well for 57 years.
Gov. Sam Brownback seemed pleased last week as he signed the bill making Transportation Secretary Mike King the director of operations of the KTA. Still, it wasn’t the full merger the governor sought in January when he spoke in the State of the State address of the duplication of having two highway departments and “the efficiencies to be gained by placing these two operations under the same umbrella.”
For example, as passed on votes of 26-13 in the Senate and 76-44 in the House, the legislation doesn’t allow for turnpike toll revenue to be spent on other roadways. King will look for ways to save money by reducing assets and sharing resources.
“While there will still be two transportation agencies in Kansas,” Brownback said Friday, “this new law sets up a new structure that will improve efficiency and reduce the duplication of resources and efforts.”
There are reasons to be wary, though, which is why state Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, recently warned that the bill was “a U-turn on the highway at high speed” and called its passage “a sad day in the state of Kansas.”
Part of the KTA’s strength has been its autonomy from the state and ability to operate like a private business, beyond the reach of grasping, micromanaging politicians. Those qualities now would seem to be compromised.
Brownback and King never did specify where they would find a projected $15 million a year in savings – a talking point and figure that nevertheless made it into the governor’s budget proposal. Asked about wasteful KDOT-KTA duplication during a meeting with The Eagle editorial board a few months ago, Brownback could point only to the agencies’ separate salt-storage facilities in Emporia.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, recently cited $90 million in reserves as evidence the KTA is overcharging motorists – fueling fears that the governor’s goal is to tap KTA funds to help make up the looming shortfall in the state general fund caused by his income-tax cuts.
Several of the law’s provisions will expire on July 1, 2016, giving lawmakers an opportunity to make sure the law is doing what it’s supposed to do.
In the meantime, the responsibility to see that it does no harm to the turnpike falls on Brownback and King. They can be assured that if the Kansas Turnpike suffers from its new lack of independence, drivers will notice – and legislators will feel misled.