Why haven't the turnpike bonds been paid off and the turnpike turned into a free road?
Lisa Callahan, public information director for the turnpike, provided this explanation:
When the turnpike opened for traffic on Oct. 26, 1956, revenues were only half of what had been predicted. Any optimistic thought of retiring the debt in 20 years was abandoned after the first day of collecting tolls.
Thirteen years went by before the first bond was able to be redeemed from revenues. Competitive routes such as Interstate 35 from Emporia to Kansas City and Kansas Highway 10 from Lawrence to Kansas City did not help turnpike revenues.
By 1983, however, the turnpike debt had been reduced from $160 million to about $36 million.
A second project, the 18th Street Expressway in Kansas City, was another problem. Unlike the main turnpike, the expressway was an obligation of the State Highway Fund. When the Kansas Department of Transportation opened a parallel route, Interstate 635, adjacent to the expressway, revenue traffic fell from 13 million to less than 1 million cars per year. Toll revenues were insufficient to maintain the 13 large bridges and pay operational expenses, much less pay debt service on outstanding bonds.
Tolls on the expressway were doubled for a while, but that only drove traffic away. Expressway consulting engineers advised the expressway would have to close unless major repairs were made.
To make matters worse, after 27 years of winter salt deterioration, the KTA needed to replace many of the 345 bridge decks on the main turnpike and upgrade the safety standards. Because all of the turnpike bridges were built within a two-year span, the decks needed major repairs or to be replaced at the same time. In 1983, in order to avoid using tax dollars on the 18th Street Expressway and to upgrade the turnpike, the decision was made to sell more bonds to:
- Pay the state's obligation for the 18th Street Expressway.
- Pay for reconstructing the expressway up to an acceptable standard.
- Upgrade the main turnpike safety features, including a median barrier between Kansas City and Topeka.
- Make other improvements, including reconstruction of many of the turnpike's 345 bridge decks.z
The barriers were so successful that the turnpike authority sold additional bonds to complete the barrier project in 1990. The KTA now owes about $132 million and needs to borrow about $30 million more to replace the deteriorating concrete pavement that has been covered with asphalt between Topeka and Kansas City.