Friday, January 18, 2013

Brownback plans to transfer highway funds to schools, merge Kansas Turnpike Authority raise questions

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA — The latest version of the turnpike tussle has started in the 2013 legislative session.

Gov. Sam Brownback's State of the State address earlier this week pointed to the existence of the Kansas Department of Transportation and Kansas Turnpike Authority as "one of the clearest examples of duplication in state government."

The governor proposed merging the two under Secretary of Transportation Mike King.

But the merger idea hit a speed bump Thursday when King appeared before the Senate Transportation Committee.

"I have reservations about why we should fix something that really isn't broken," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. He said he believed Brownback was simply trying to expand his control over state government.

Hensley said the Kansas Turnpike Authority, which oversees the 236-mile Kansas Turnpike, is efficiently run, supported by tolls and receives no tax dollars.

Brownback said merging the two entities would save the state $30 million over two years, although he provided no details about where those savings would come from.

Earlier this week, Brownback's Budget Director Steve Anderson said under the proposed merger there would be savings where turnpike revenue could be used to make improvements to "feeder roads" to the turnpike.

But Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said the proposal would produce savings in merging administrative offices and service crews.

Secretary King said he thought bringing the Turnpike Authority under the Kansas Department of Transportation would make KDOT more efficient. KDOT oversees about 10,000 miles of state highways.

King said both KDOT and the Turnpike Authority have road designers and facilities in the same city in six locations. He said there are eight states where the head of the state transportation agency is also over the turnpike system.

But Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, said the Kansas Turnpike is seen as "the crown jewel" of roads. "We really need to be very careful with the changes that we make. We need to be very cautious," he said.

Michael Johnston, who is president and chief executive officer of the Turnpike Authority, said he was eager to learn more about Brownback's plan.

He declined to give his opinion on the merger proposal.

But he said one of the attributes of the Turnpike Authority is that it is independent of politics. "Ours is independent and it is non-partisan. One of the reasons it has been so successful is because it has not been politicized by any governor," he said.

Johnston said the Turnpike Authority was chartered in 1953 to build and operate the tollway without state dollars. "That is what we have done," he said.

Still, there have been attempts in the past to tinker with the turnpike.

In 2006, two major investment banking firms issued reports on how much the turnpike would fetch if it were sold to private interests. In 2007, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, proposed increasing tolls and using the revenue to fund repairs at state universities.

And in 2009, a legislator filed a bill to abolish the Turnpike Authority and use the tolls to fund state government. None of these proposals went anywhere.

Secretary King said Kansas highway officials are looking at other states that are constructing more toll roads, but he said there was no study identifying a potential toll road in Kansas.

Donovan said Kansas may not have the population density to make more toll roads feasible.

Brownback has proposed over the next two years taking $245 million from the state highway fund and using it for public school funding, including special education.

Donovan said he was concerned about the Legislature using KDOT funds for other purposes. He said policymakers tell the public that their motor fuels taxes and other fees go to paying for transportation improvements, "then we spend it on schools. That sort of makes the public trust us even less."

But King said low bids, low inflation and low interest rates are freeing up highway funds. He said no projects under the state's comprehensive transportation plan would be jeopardized by Brownback's proposal to transfer those funds to schools.