Topeka — Motorists would pay higher tolls on the Kansas Turnpike to fund numerous repairs at state universities under a plan outlined Wednesday by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
"This plan is responsible and focused, and it allows us to enhance the academic mission of our universities now and in the future," Sebelius said.
The proposal calls for spending $575 million over the next seven years.
Of that amount, $300 million would come from a surcharge on turnpike tolls of up to 5 percent per year for seven years. "We do have some asset potential in the turnpike," Sebelius said.
Sebelius' plan also would accelerate payment of $75 million in bonds on a previous "crumbling classroom" initiative, which is similar to a recommendation by the Kansas House.
And the proposal would allow $200 million in loans from the state's Pooled Money Investment Board.
The proposed increase in tolls would have to be approved by the Kansas Legislature.
House leaders said they opposed an increase in turnpike tolls.
"I believe transportation funds should not be used for purposes other than transportation," House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, said.
House Majority Leader Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, called the toll proposal a "university tax."
But Sebelius defended her plan, saying it didn't raise taxes, Kansas Turnpike tolls would still be among the lowest in the nation, and it addressed a problem that had been forming for years.
She added that she was open to other ideas.
Reginald Robinson, president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Board of Regents, praised Sebelius for producing "a serious, creative and comprehensive proposal for addressing the challenging maintenance issues confronting our state university campuses."
The six regents universities have said they have a backlog of approximately $660 million in needed repairs, many of which are critical to the schools' operations.
In 2004, for instance, a broken water pipe flooded the main administration building at KU Medical Center, causing an estimated $1 million in damage, officials said.
Earlier this month, an 84-year-old water pipe on the campus of Kansas State University burst, disrupting classes in several buildings.
The issue has been simmering for years. Higher education officials say the repair projects keep piling up because the state gives them about $15 million per year for maintenance when they need $85 million annually.
Last year, the regents recommended a tax increase and borrowing to address the problem, but the proposal died in the Legislature.
In 2004, universities said they needed $584.5 million. That number increased last year to $727 million, including $285 million for the KU campus in Lawrence and the Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.
But last week, lawmakers told school officials to pare down the list by removing repairs at buildings not essential to education, such as Allen Fieldhouse at Kansas University.
KU Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Richard Lariviere said the top priority for KU would be $8 million in repairs to utility tunnels that carry heating, cooling, Internet and telephone lines.
"Some of these tunnels were hand dug by first- and second-generation Kansans more than 100 years ago," Larivere said.
Another problem building is Malott Hall, which houses KU's chemistry department and pharmacy school, he said. "Malott Hall opened in 1954, and it looks, feels, and smells like 1954 in Malott Hall," he said.
College students statewide also have urged the Legislature to come up with more funding, requesting a down payment of approximately $180 million as part of a multi-year plan.