TOPEKA, Kan. — For more than 50 years, the Kansas Turnpike has been a major transportation artery, carrying thousands of commuters between the Kansas City metro and the Oklahoma border.
It also has been maintained by an independent agency outside of the Kansas Department of Transportation — something Gov. Sam Brownback wants to change.
In his State of the State address, Brownback proposed merging the Kansas Turnpike Authority into KDOT. But the move raises questions about the future of the 236-mile turnpike system and the possibility of Kansas building new toll roads.
Sen. Les Donovan, a longtime transportation supporter, is urging caution as the proposal gets fleshed out, going so far as to call the turnpike a "crown jewel" of Kansas.
"We really need to be very careful with the changes that we make. We need to be very cautious," said Donovan, a Wichita Republican and former chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Brownback's budget director, Steve Anderson, projects the merger could generate $30 million in savings for KDOT through combining operations and reducing overhead. That money would flow to the state general fund, the source of revenue for funding general government operations, such as social services, schools and public safety.
Anderson insists no one is talking about raising tolls or selling the turnpike.
"I don't foresee that, nor has discussion taken place," Anderson said.
KDOT Secretary Mike King agreed with Donovan that Kansas had roads to be proud of, including the federal interstates, calling the turnpike "a real nice road." He said the likely savings and changes caused by the merger would be internal, such as the combining of staff functions in design and operations but keeping the turnpike's independent, five-member board of directors.
KTA Executive Director Michael Johnston said he has spoken with King in the past about the efficiencies of combining facilities in Emporia and Lawrence, but he doesn't know what the administration is considering.
"The important thing is this is a developing story," he said. "This isn't a story about a rigorous study that has taken place."
Legislators say the turnpike's luster shouldn't be diminished in the spirit of finding efficiencies. They fear the proposal could signal a new revenue source for other government programs instead of investing in the turnpike's future.
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"It makes the bottom line look better. If you get $30 million in savings from the turnpike, it helps pay for the tax cuts," Democratic Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said Friday.
The turnpike raises its tolls about once every three years, Johnston said, with the next increase taking effect in February. Revenues pay for ongoing operations, such as financing bonds for construction and maintenance, including the system's 348 bridges.
Hensley worries the administration is on a "control fetish" to put more areas that are outside its scope under its purview. Hensley also sees a similarity to debates in recent years over the Kansas Bioscience Authority, an autonomous agency created by legislators to nurture and invest in emerging biotechnology in Kansas.
"What they're about to do is to begin on a similar propaganda war on the turnpike authority," Hensley said.
The administration maintains it doesn't want to dismantle the authority.
"I don't see a huge amount of autonomy lost from within the turnpike itself," said King, who serves on the turnpike board.
King said there would be little benefit to increasing the number of toll roads in Kansas unless they were located in congested urban areas where traffic counts would justify the expense. Tolls collected from the southern leg of the system past Topeka didn't generate enough revenue to pay for the system, he said, adding the bulk of revenues come from the Topeka to Kansas City segments.
That segment has seen significant investment in recent years by the KTA. Johnston said the authority spent close to $400 million to widen the road from two lanes in each direction to three between Topeka and Lawrence, replace bridges over the Kansas River and add a toll plaza for access to Tonganoxie and Eudora.
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