House passes watered-down version of Kansas Turnpike merger with KDOT

A watered-down version of a bill to merge the Kansas Turnpike Authority with the state’s transportation department was passed Friday by the House.

The measure, approved on a vote of 78-40, does little more than encourage cooperation between the Kansas Turnpike Authority and the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Support for the bill picked up some steam after two amendments were added that addressed concerns that toll money would be used for other state highway projects – even though an existing state law prohibits that.

A law also has been on the books since 1975 that requires the turnpike authority to cooperate with the state’s transportation secretary.

Rep. Richard Proehl, R-Parsons, chairman of the House transportation committee, said after the vote that the bill “does not change a lot.”

Michael Johnston, the authority’s CEO, said he would wait until a written copy of the amended bill is available before he would comment.

“I’m not going to speculate on what I think they did,” he said.

The bill will now go to the Senate for consideration.

One of the few pieces of HB 2234 to remain intact was authorization for the authority and KDOT to enter into contracts with each other in providing personnel and equipment. That section originally also included the phrase “other resources,” but Proehl presented a successful amendment that removed that language.

“No one could define exactly what ‘other resources’ were,” Proehl said, “and there was concern it could mean money.”

The other amendment that was passed prevents the state from contracting with the turnpike authority to work on highway projects beyond 10 miles from the turnpike. Previously, the bill had said the authority and KDOT could contract with each other to work on “highways of the state.”

Rep. Julie Menghini, D-Pittsburg, said that without the 10-mile restriction, there was too much ambiguity about where turnpike dollars could be spent.

The overarching concern about the bill was that toll money for the turnpike – the only source of income for the 236-mile stretch of road – would be taken and used elsewhere.

To use toll money for anything but the turnpike would be the equivalent of a tax increase, several House members said.

Nothing in the bill facilitates “theft of KTA money,” Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, a member of the House transportation committee, said during the bill’s discussion. He added, “KTA will remain exactly as it is.”

During the debate, which lasted for more than 90 minutes, a number of House members questioned why there was a need to change anything since no one claimed the turnpike wasn’t operating successfully. They also noted that the turnpike is already helping KDOT, including clearing snow during recent storms.

An amendment to put the decision to increase tolls under the authority of the Legislature was defeated. KTA’s five-member board makes toll decisions.

The turnpike authority ended 2012 with $29 million in cash reserves and $65 million in short-term investments. That money and a well-maintained road are considered key components for KTA in maintaining a good bond credit rating so it can get lower interest rates in selling bonds for large projects, according to bond consultants.

Gov. Sam Brownback first publicly mentioned the proposed merger during his State of the State address in January. At the time, he also said the merger would provide $15 million in savings for KDOT in 2014 and 2015 by combining services.

No details of where those savings would come from were ever provided, and that point was also brought up during Friday’s House discussion.

An original provision in the bill called for the KDOT secretary to also serve as the authority’s CEO and board chairperson, but that was struck down during a committee hearing. However, the transportation secretary, who serves on the board, can always be elected as the board’s head.