Drivers regularly drop a couple bucks as they shuttle along the Kansas Turnpike. In the years to come, pay-your-way driving could take over parts of Interstate 35, Kansas 10 and other highways that carry commuter traffic in the Kansas City area.
With existing taxes falling short for building the roads that are needed to meet our insatiable thirst to drive, tolls offer another way.
And because traffic jams up, most notably in the Kansas City area, transportation planners find themselves forced to find new ways to break up congestion. In particular, they see a solution in express lanes for drivers who are willing to pay extra to dodge traffic.
While expanded toll roads still appear decades away, planners increasingly see them as a tool for easing metro-area commutes.
“As things get more expensive, we’re looking at alternative ways to help pay for transportation,” said Chris Herrick, the planning director for the Kansas Department of Transportation.
Consider some examples of what has been studied in Kansas:
• A recent study suggested using tolled express lanes on Kansas 10, I-35 and I-435.
• Planners studied using tolls to pay for a new bridge across the Missouri River connecting Leavenworth to Platte County. It is expected to cost up to $120 million to replace the existing Centennial Bridge, and a $1.50 toll could bring in $4 million the first year, according to the February study.
• Tolling has been looked at as one way to help pay for a proposed highway loop outside of I-435, running on the outskirts of the metro area from Missouri west through Miami County and turning north up to Leavenworth County.
The tolling trend is not limited to Kansas. Missouri has considered tolls as a way to pay for rebuilding a deteriorating I-70 from Kansas City to St. Louis.
Although Kansas is locked into a 10-year, $8 billion highway plan, the state still has hundreds of millions of dollars in highway needs in the Kansas City area — the crush largely a product of workers migrating deeper into the suburbs from downtown.
The current highway program addresses some highway congestion problems in Kansas City. Yet some traffic knots still need to be untied.
I-35 already busts at the seams during rush hour between Olathe and downtown. And traffic is expected to worsen on Kansas 10 as population and commercial development push further toward the urban fringe.
Kansas has considered tolling before. But observers see a new emphasis on the practice under Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
Brownback generally has supported tolls as a way to pay for roads. Two years ago, he endorsed a study of tolls on the proposed South Lawrence Trafficway.
“I think this is a prudent and wise thing to do — have users help pay for it. It really stretches our dollars out,” Brownback said in a 2011 interview. “It is something that we need to explore even more of in the state.”
A spokeswoman recently said the governor is committed to completing the current $8 billion transportation plan. If more highway work is needed beyond the plan, the administration will consider alternative funding sources, she said.
Transportation observers say Kansas has become more receptive to the idea of tolling as lawmakers squeeze more out of their budget.
“It’s a reflection of the economic times we’re in and that money’s tight,” said Mell Henderson, the director of transportation for the Mid-America Regional Council.
One of those sources could be the innovative — and controversial — high-occupancy tolls otherwise known as HOT lanes. They already are used in areas with severe traffic problems, such as Atlanta and Los Angeles. HOT lanes allow drivers to pay a toll to bypass traffic jams by using lanes otherwise limited to carpools.
Sometimes derided as “Lexus lanes,” HOT lanes operate in nine states with about a dozen others being constructed or designed.
Tolls in HOT lanes can fluctuate with the level of traffic and the time of day. Rates can range anywhere from a quarter to $9, according to a 2012 federal audit.
Tolled express lanes help control congestion either by encouraging commuters to carpool, to take a bus or train or discourage driving altogether.
“More and more states are pushing this direction,” said Jim Ely, the chairman of the tolling division for the engineering firm HNTB.
But HOT lanes are politically touchy with drivers. Facebook pages were set up opposing them in Atlanta. A recent government audit warned that they raise fairness questions. Are the poor disproportionately affected? Is one geographic region hurt and another spared?
“Concerns about equity may grow as (toll lane) projects become more widespread,” warned a 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
But some think those fears could be allayed if toll proceeds were used for expanded bus service so commuters could take mass transit, which generally is allowed to use the tolled express lanes.
“It’s essential to offer an alternative in order to make them socially acceptable,” said Greg Newmark, who teaches transportation policy at the University of Chicago.
State officials stressed that any new tolls would apply to new lanes, not existing ones, so taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay double for roads.
They also have indicated that any decision to expand toll roads would likely need to be approved by the Kansas Legislature.
The most recent toll study came out in May. It recommend HOT lanes as a relief valve for congestion on I-35 between Olathe and downtown.
I-35 is already one of the most congested highways in the metro area, with traffic volumes reaching as high as 143,000 vehicles a day near U.S. 69 on the Overland Park-Lenexa border. In 30 years, it could jump to 183,000 a day.
Experts say building another non-toll lane on I-35 is not necessarily the best answer.
“As soon as they build a lane, it will get filled up,” said Kip Strauss, a planning department manager for HNTB in Kansas City. “There is more demand that wants to use the corridor than what they could ever possibly build in lanes.”
Herrick said KDOT would have to build public support for HOT lanes before they were ever built to avoid controversies that have ensued in other areas.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a pipe dream,” Herrick said of HOT lanes. “I would say right now we’re not looking to do a HOT lane here in the real near future.”