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Archive for Sunday, June 15, 2003

Risky curve

State officials shouldn’t rush into any plan to sell the Kansas Turnpike to a private operator.

June 15, 2003

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There's no doubt that state officials are getting more creative in their approach to funding the state budget.

That probably isn't a bad thing, but selling the Kansas Turnpike may be a bit extreme. Such a move certainly would require much study and significant safeguards to make sure the major highway continues to serve the needs of Kansans.

The immediate attraction of selling the turnpike to a private investor is the windfall it could provide to the state budget. State officials don't know exactly how much the 236-mile road could be sold for, but it presumably would be a sizable amount that would provide a big one-time shot in the arm for the state.

Who would want to buy and operate the Kansas Turnpike? Presumably it would be a private business that thinks it can make a profit from operating the toll road. If the buyer could succeed in that goal, it would be ahead of the state, which has failed miserably to make good on its decades-old promise to pay off the turnpike's debt and turn it into a non-toll highway.

Perhaps a private company could turn the turnpike into a profitable venture by running it more efficiently, but a couple of other possibilities also exist that could be detrimental to the state. One would be that the owner would raise tolls on the road to help defray costs. The other would be to delay or eliminate maintenance and long-range improvements to the road, which would cause it to deteriorate over time.

The state could maintain regulatory authority over the turnpike, as it does with public utilities, to oversee the tolls and other aspects of the operation, but recent revelations about Westar, the state's largest electric utility, would make many Kansans wary of a privately run turnpike. Experiences with the state's privatized adoption and foster care system also raise some red flags on the advantages of turning state functions over to private agencies. Adding a layer of administration doesn't tend to make an operation more profitable, and the state is unlikely to find a turnpike investor who is willing to swallow the kind of financial losses suffered by the state's adoption and foster care contractors.

If it's a good idea to sell the Kansas Turnpike, how about other state highways? How far could such a trend be carried? The state's highway system is so important to its economic health and development that it seems risky to transfer control of it to private operators.

It's an interesting question, made more interesting by the amount of money that could be involved. Predictably, members of the Kansas Turnpike Authority are showing little interest in selling the road they oversee. According to the KTA's president, such a move would be complicated and unprecedented in the nation.

Kansas could break new ground by pursuing the sale of the turnpike, but this could be one place were the state would be better off letting others take the lead and learning from their mistakes.

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