AP: Debate on proposed road agencies merger delayed

1/25/2013

TOPEKA (AP) — A presentation Thursday by the top official of the Kansas Turnpike Authority steered clear of discussion of where a proposed merger with the Kansas Department of Transportation could go, focusing instead on how the turnpike got to where it is in 2013.

TOPEKA (AP) — A presentation Thursday by the top official of the Kansas Turnpike Authority steered clear of discussion of where a proposed merger with the Kansas Department of Transportation could go, focusing instead on how the turnpike got to where it is in 2013.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades limited the testimony from KTA president and CEO Michael Johnston to an overview of operations, keeping debate about Gov. Sam Brownback's proposed transportation merger for another day.

"We're not going to move into the KTA/KDOT deal. This is informational only," said Rhoades, a Newton Republican.

The Brownback administration has shared little detail about the merger since the Republican governor mentioned it in his State of the State address and devoted a short section on what consolidation of the agencies would net Kansas taxpayers. Members of the House committee said they had questions about the proposal but would abide by Rhoades' direction and wait until there is a proposal with more details before them.

Johnston said he hasn't seen details of what the governor envisions in a merger with KDOT, but added that the two entities have worked well together for years on projects such as construction and installation of fiber optic cables.

"The law requires that we cooperate and we think that we have," said Johnston, a former legislator and KDOT secretary. "We're friends with KDOT. We're good neighbors with KDOT."

The authority operates and maintains the 236-mile toll road that stretches from Kansas City, Kan., to the Oklahoma border. Brownback has estimated the state could save $15 million in each of the next two years by combining the transportation department and the Turnpike Authority.

KDOT is funded by sales and motor fuels taxes, as well as federal highway revenues to build and maintain more than 10,000 roads and thousands of bridges statewide.

Tom Whitaker, executive director of the Kansas Motor Carriers Association, said little is known about the merger proposal other than what Brownback announced in his State of the State and is included in a few paragraphs in the budget blueprint.

"Our position is based only on (that) and we are opposed and want it left alone," Whitaker said.

Without knowing more details, Whitaker said motor carriers would be concerned if the structure of the turnpike and its tolls were to change under the merger. Higher tolls could eat into already thin profit margins for trucking firms, he said, which could force them to search other, more efficient routes through or around Kansas to deliver their goods.

"The turnpike is an economic jewel in the state of Kansas," he said.

Johnston said the authority had between $80 million and $85 million in unencumbered cash balances generated by tolls. The turnpike has a bond rating of AA-, with $265 million in outstanding obligations.

The ranking Democrat on the House budget committee said it would benefit legislators to take a longer look at the proposal, including why the turnpike was established as a stand-alone entity in 1953.

"At one time, legislators decided it wasn't better to put it in KDOT," said Rep. Jerry Henry of Cummings. "We need to investigate what was the reason why the two were separated."

Henry and others said safety also must be a concern, noting that the turnpike has 51 Kansas Highway Patrol troopers who serve just on the route, providing 24-hour coverage over three shifts. Johnston said the troopers' salaries, cars, guns and benefits are paid by the turnpike under contract with the patrol.

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