Politics & Government

Do you drive the Kansas Turnpike and pay cash? Coming toll hike among largest ever

Vehicles get on the Kansas Turnpike near the 47th South Street exit. (July 19, 2018)
Vehicles get on the Kansas Turnpike near the 47th South Street exit. (July 19, 2018) The Wichita Eagle

If you’re a commuter paying cash to drive on the Kansas Turnpike, a price increase coming this fall will be the second largest in decades.

The Kansas Turnpike Authority announced this week that tolls will go up beginning Oct. 1. For passenger vehicle drivers who pay cash, the increase is expected to run 12.5 percent on average. K-TAG vehicle drivers will see an increase of about 5 percent.

As a percentage, only a 15 percent increase in 2009 was larger. Before then, a 12 percent increase in 1961 had been the largest jump for passenger vehicles (larger commercial vehicles have seen bigger increases in the past).

The Turnpike price hikes sparked concern on Thursday, after The Eagle asked drivers to weigh in on Facebook.

“I drive it every day now but depends on how much it goes up I may have to go another way,” Justin Burns said.

Karen Cox Wohlwend said she thought the toll was already pretty high.

“At some point, I may have to take the scenic route to Kansas City,” Wohlwend said.

Are you confused how open road tolling works on the Kansas Turnpike Authority? Watch this video and learn which lanes to use.

So what does the price increase mean in real terms?

Right now it costs $7 to go from the Wichita K-96 Turnpike entrance to the Topeka Boulevard exit in Topeka if you pay cash. After Oct. 1, the toll will be $8.

Traveling from Wichita’s Kellogg Avenue Turnpike entrance to the southern end of the Turnpike costs $2.75 right now if you pay cash. The price will jump to $3.

The last toll increase came in 2016. At that time, the average increase for cash customers was 10 percent, with no increase for K-TAG. Before that, tolls were raised for both cash and K-TAG drivers in 2013, with an increase of 10 percent for cash and 5 percent for K-TAG.

Drivers are spending more than $18 million more on Kansas toll roads than they did five years ago, a review of the Turnpike’s financial records show.

KTA described the coming toll increases as modest and noted it doesn’t receive tax funding. The toll increases are projected to bring in an additional $6.6 million a year, according to KTA estimates.

In a statement, it said higher prices are needed to pay for projects to preserve and modernize highways using cash on hand instead of incurring new debt. Over the next year, the authority plans to open more K-TAG lanes and build highway-speed toll lanes in east Topeka and near the Oklahoma border.

Driving on Kansas toll roads costs an average of 5 cents per mile, according to statistics kept by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Kansas rate is among the lowest in the nation, though still higher than some stretches of Oklahoma,where it costs just 1 cent per mile on average.

“KTA’s toll rate per mile continues to be one of the lowest in the country,” KTA CEO Steve Hewitt said. “We encourage travelers to maximize their savings by using an electronic transponder like K-TAG to pay for tolls.”

About 60 percent of drivers use K-TAG or another electronic device to pay their tolls, KTA said.

The price gap between cash customers and K-TAG customers will grow larger once the new, higher tolls go into effect. Right now, drivers with a K-TAG pay 20 percent less. The gap will grow to as much as 25 percent on average on Oct. 1.

The same Wichita K-96 to Topeka trip that costs cash customers $7 right now and $8 after Oct. 1, costs K-Tag customers $5.60 right now. After Oct. 1, K-TAG drivers will pay $5.90.

Cash customers currently pay 25 percent more than K-TAG customers for that particular trip. On Oct. 1, the gap increases to 35 percent.

But at the end of the day, both cash customers and K-TAG customers will pay more. Still, KTA pointed to a customer survey that showed 80 percent like the removal of K-TAG gates at toll plazas and that 93 percent of those using highway-speed toll lanes are satisfied.

“With user fees supporting the roadway, it is especially important that customers be satisfied with our performance,” Hewitt said.