R.D. Fogo: Turnpike ‘ain’t broke’

03/03/2013 12:00 AM

03/01/2013 5:25 PM

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was the advice the late L.W. Newcomer, the Kansas Turnpike CEO, gave to his staff and his newly hired assistant in January 1966. It was his way of saying that when managing a state agency, “don’t overspend.” It is still good advice today.

But after 10 years of being open to traffic, the turnpike was, in fact, perilously close to being “broke.” Few employees had been given pay increases during those 10 years; no bonds had been redeemed from revenues; the under-designed 4-inch-thick asphalt pavement over a rock base had wheel ruts nearly that deep. The road was rough. There were no guard rails around the piers, and the fatality rate was astronomical for a major highway. Traffic and revenues were far below projections, and what maintenance reserve funds had been accumulated over 10 years had been diverted to build two new interchanges in Kansas City, leaving a pittance for day-to-day maintenance of a 236.5-mile, four-lane highway.

When the Kansas Turnpike Authority was created in 1953, the only way the legislation stood a snowball’s chance to be enacted was to include language that guaranteed the state would never be responsible for the proposed debt should the turnpike go “belly-up.” It was clear from the start that the Kansas Turnpike Authority and the Kansas Highway Commission (later renamed the Kansas Department of Transportation) were two separate state agencies with different rules and regulations.

Unlike KDOT, the KTA was purposefully allowed to establish many of its own rules and regulations. The KTA employees were not to be civil service employees. There was even language that asserted the KTA was not subject to the control or supervision of any other state agency, and language precluded the direct supervision of the governor.

After the initial euphoria of building such a large multilane project in only 22 months, the reality began to sink in that it was very possible the turnpike, in addition to ending in an Oklahoma wheat field, would end at the edge of a bondholder “fiscal cliff.”

But fortunately, expenses were minimized, traffic and revenues increased and, over time, maintenance improved and guard rails and median barriers were put in place. It was a needed route, and 60 years after its birth it is a well-maintained and -managed highway, arguably equal or better in quality than many, if not most, of its younger peers anywhere in the country.

What hasn’t been widely recognized is this: States that had substantial toll-road mileage, which was incorporated into the interstate system of highways in 1956, have a significant financial advantage over states that do not have toll roads. If one thinks of all the interstate roads in Kansas as a system, KDOT and the federal Highway Trust Fund were spared the cost of building 236.5 miles of four-lane highway.

With or without the turnpike, the state of Kansas receives exactly the same federal fuel tax allotment. With the turnpike, KDOT got to spend 100 percent of its federal distribution on roughly 80 percent of its interstate mileage, a real advantage for the state. With the turnpike, KDOT also was saved from spending the 10 percent matching funds from state fuel taxes.

But there is more. Everyone knows the tolls pay for the turnpike operations. But turnpike customers’ vehicles also burn fuel, and those fuel taxes go to supplement KDOT funds for use on its roads.

The original cost savings, maintenance savings, reconstruction cost savings, fuel taxes from turnpike customers over 56 years – all have accrued to KDOT and state taxpayers. Fifty-six years of toll funding in Kansas has made a multibillion-dollar funding advantage for Kansas interstates over those states without turnpikes.

Toll-road customers already pay twice – the toll and their fuel taxes that go to the state. Combining KTA and KDOT, as Gov. Sam Brownback proposes, will only dilute the turnpike revenues, and any managerial savings soon will dissipate into thin air as turnpike revenues are spent on roads far away from the turnpike. Raising tolls to support other projects is in a sense making turnpike customers pay three times.

“Fixing the road when it ain’t broke” seems to me to be a bad deal all the way around.

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