Critics caution against governor’s plan to merge Kansas Turnpike, transportation department

Nearly a billion drivers have covered billions of miles on the Kansas Turnpike over the past five decades while paying more than $2 billion in tolls.

The Kansas Turnpike Authority, an independent state agency completely supported by tolls, has operated the 236-mile turnpike that stretches from Kansas City to the Oklahoma border since it opened in 1956.

But Gov. Sam Brownback wants to change that by pulling KTA under the umbrella of the state’s transportation department. He says it would save money through operational efficiencies, combining efforts to do everything from snow plowing to road design.

Some state legislators are throwing up a caution flag, warning the governor to go slow on changing a system that has worked well for so long. Michael Johnston, the turnpike authority’s president and CEO, said KTA already helps KDOT and there’s nothing now that prevents the two agencies from working together for more efficiency.

“You don’t have to swallow KTA to do that,” Johnston said Friday.

Brownback’s proposed budget projects the merger would save $30 million for 2014 and 2015 for the transportation department with the money being transferred to the general fund.

“It seems questionable to me why you would need two major highway departments,” Brownback said Friday during an interview at The Eagle. “You can stand at one of the salt domes in Emporia and see the one for the other agency right there.

“What we’re trying to do is get value out of our assets. We think we can get $15 million a year in savings by combining that set of assets.”

How the merger would affect those who drive on the turnpike — in terms of toll increases and maintenance of the road — is a little sketchy. So is how Brownback’s administration arrived at the large chunk of savings from a merger.

Full details of the plan aren’t available because the legislation needed to change the law concerning KTA is still being written. Legislators will get their shot at altering Brownback’s proposal as it moves through the process.

All sides agree that the turnpike is among the state’s best roads. Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, has called it a “crown jewel” of Kansas.

“KTA is one of the best run organizations in the state,” said Donovan, who spent eight years serving on the KTA five-member board as the chair of the Senate’s transportation committee. “We need to be very, very careful with whatever we do. We don’t want to mess up a good thing.”

Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, Senate minority leader and ranking member of the Senate’s transportation committee, said, “I think this merger is absolutely unnecessary. The turnpike is one of the premier roads, and it has operated very efficiently for a very, very long time.”

Rolling the turnpike into a state agency only increases the size of government, he said.

“It’s a reversal of what I thought was their mantra of downsizing government,” Hensley said, adding that Brownback is “scraping and scrapping for money wherever he can find it” to offset funds lost from state income tax cuts enacted by the governor and Legislature last year.

Maintaining the turnpike

Truckers have a large stake in the turnpike. Trucks with three or more axles represent 39 percent of KTA’s revenue while making up 11 percent of the traffic, KTA figures show.

Tom Whitaker, executive director of the Kansas Motor Carriers Association, a trade group for the trucking industry, said he wouldn’t want to see KTA turned over to the state and become subject to the “whim of the governor and Legislature.”

“Change can be a scary thing,” he said. “If you reduce our accessibility or if maintenance is reduced or if tolls would move to an unrealistic level, then trucks are like water – they’ll find another place to go.”

KTA’s board would retain the right to regulate tolls under the proposal, state officials said.

The plan calls for KDOT Secretary Mike King to direct day-to-day activities of both KDOT and KTA. He already serves on the turnpike board.

State officials say they want to keep the turnpike in top condition.

“There seems to be a fear right now that somehow the condition of the turnpike is going to decrease under the umbrella of KDOT,” said Jerry Younger, deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation and veteran of the agency for more than 20 years. “Believe me, that’s not our intent.

“The reality is people pay tolls, and they expect a certain condition level on the turnpike. For the most part, people are happy with that condition now. We would expect that same condition or better would continue.”

Savings to general fund

By state law, all toll money must be used on the turnpike. One of the reasons for that is to hold down toll prices.

But the law could be changed so toll money could be used for anything, said Johnston, who has headed KTA for 18 years after serving as a state senator from Parsons and as the transportation secretary under Gov. Joan Finney in the early 1990s.

Such a change in state law would have been needed for a 2007 proposal by then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius that called for raising tolls to help make repairs at the state’s universities. The measure didn’t get very far in the Legislature.

While the turnpike doesn’t receive any federal or state funds, Donovan said the turnpike creates revenue and service for the state.

State motor fuel and sales taxes collected from the turnpike’s six service areas — totaling more than $9 million annually — go to the state. Fines from traffic tickets issued on the turnpike are collected by the county where the offense occurred.

The 51 Kansas Highway Patrol troopers who work the turnpike are paid by KTA.

Brownback’s proposal calls for the savings in 2014 and 2015 to go the general fund, where the money could be used for anything, including areas outside of transportation. But the governor said he foresees savings being used on roads.

“We have plenty of road needs in this state,” he said. “Maybe we put it into expansion of toll roads in the state that wouldn’t currently pay for themselves, but they would if they could have some subsidy.

“I don’t want to sit here and say it’s always going to go into the general fund. There’s a legislative process, and they’re going to look at what they think ought to happen.”

Johnston, who was notified about Brownback’s plan a few days before the governor mentioned it during his State of the State address on Jan. 15, said KTA is already cooperating with KDOT to save the state money.

He cited KTA laying fiber optic cable for KDOT, saving the state agency “hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions” because KDOT didn’t have to pay higher fees to a third party. KTA charges KDOT only the cost of its labor and materials, Johnston said, noting that KTA has helped the state agency on other projects.

“There’s not been one instance where we’ve been uncooperative when asked by KDOT to do something,” Johnston said. State law requires such cooperation, he added.

“I’m not trying to undermine the governor and his plan,” Johnston said, “but there isn’t anything that stands in the way of KDOT and us jointly changing our operational practices if we can be more efficient. (Brownback) insinuates that to achieve these efficiencies the state has to take over the KTA. That’s not factually correct.”

Other states also have tried to tap into their toll roads to get more value. In 2006, Indiana grabbed $3.6 billion in cash by signing a 75-year lease for its toll road with a joint venture of companies from Spain and Australia.

Ohio’s turnpike is operated very much like Kansas with a five-member board and as an entity separate from state control. But the state’s legislature is considering a proposal that would allow the state to use its toll road as a borrowing agent.

The state could borrow $1.5 billion backed by future tolls. An additional $1.5 billion could be raised for projects through federal and local matching money, according to Ohio transportation officials.

That plan came after a year of study.

Toll increase coming

Johnston said KTA manages the turnpike “very conservatively.” Over the last 20 years, KTA has spent $400 million on infrastructure, according to KTA’s website.

Kansas’ turnpike saw $84 million in tolls in 2011, the most recent figures that are available. It also cleared nearly $15 million that year and has almost $35 million in cash reserves.

KTA is getting ready to make its 15th toll increase since the turnpike was opened, although not all increases have been for all vehicles. On Feb. 1, tolls will increase 10 percent for drivers of cars and light trucks who pay cash and 5 percent for large commercial vehicles and those using K-Tags.

The increase is expected to generate $4 million annually in additional income to replace bridge decks.

“We do modest toll increases about every three years,” Johnston said. “We don’t wait 15 years and have 50 percent increases, which is what some toll roads have done, particularly those managed in a more political way.”

KTA also has nearly $265 million in bond indebtedness, incurred for large projects such as the $130 million in bridge construction and other improvements around Lawrence that was completed in 2011. The turnpike stretch between Lawrence and Topeka sees an average of nearly 36,000 vehicles daily, the most of any area on the road.

Johnston said KTA maintains a large cash reserve to help obtain bonds at a lower rate.

“We can’t live paycheck to paycheck,” Johnston said.

Rep. Peggy Mast, R-Emporia, agreed the turnpike has been run well, but she also said, “I’m encouraged by the merger. KTA has some very good resources in regard to their equipment and their response time in cleaning the highway.”

She noted that “a little bit of oversight from the government, more eyes on their budgeting,” might create ways for the turnpike to share its revenue with the state.

“There are a lot of opportunities for sharing,” Mast said. “I think it’s a win-win.”

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