Rep. Mark Hutton: Turnpike should pay off debt, move to KDOT

03/14/2013 12:00 AM

03/13/2013 5:16 PM

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce initiated the discussion in 1951 that eventually led to what we know today as the Kansas Turnpike. It was a bold initiative that was considered cutting-edge for that time.

The Legislature created a semiprivate entity, the Kansas Turnpike Authority, that would sell $160 million in bonds to build the badly needed road. It is clear in the law that the Legislature intended the turnpike to eventually be debt-free and operated by the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Contrary to common myth, there is nothing in the law that indicates that this toll road was to someday be a freeway. In fact, it specifically allows for tolls to continue.

Today the turnpike has debt of $267 million. It is hard to imagine that when forming the KTA, the Legislature intended the turnpike to be perpetually in debt, as it has been for its 60 years of existence.

The turnpike currently has almost $200 million in unencumbered cash and cash reserved for bond payments – all while its tolls are the fourth lowest in the nation, less than half of the national average. In short, I believe that the turnpike could be debt-free in the near future.

Many times people have stated that we would be better off if our government was run more like a business. I totally agree and would argue that the turnpike should have been debt-free much earlier had it been managed more like a business. Few companies would invest and risk such a significant amount on an asset for a zero return on its capital.

Some say the merger would destroy a good thing, implying that the state would not maintain the road. This argument is based on what? The last time I drove I-70 and I-35, they were good roads, every bit the quality of the turnpike. Kansas has quality roads because we recognize their value to our economy.

Of course, the biggest argument against the merger is that it’s all about the money. To that I say, “You bet it is.” Do you think our government runs on air? It all costs money. Lots of money.

The “business” of the turnpike should be about providing the highest level of service to its users while returning the best return on value possible to the citizens of this state. Whether the money is used to grow government or lower taxes should be up to the people we elect to office.

In its present form, the turnpike serves only those who choose to drive on it. I believe it can and should do more for all Kansans.

We should not fear this. Many states have successfully allowed their toll-road system to contribute to state government. Kansas should be no different.

The law that created the turnpike has two triggering events that would result in the turnpike’s automatic conveyance to the authority of KDOT. The first is if all of the bonds are paid off. The second is if at a point in time there is sufficient cash to pay off the debt.

I believe that the turnpike is close to that point, and that it should be our goal to be debt-free. Not just because it triggers conveyance to KDOT but because it’s good business and will benefit our state.

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