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Archive for Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Committee nixes governor’s plan for turnpike toll increase

March 14, 2007

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— Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' proposal to increase tolls on the Kansas Turnpike to help pay for repairs at state universities barely made it to the legislative on-ramp Tuesday.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee had a hearing on the proposal, heard from heavyweight opposition and then politely ditched the measure.

"We need to be honest and provide the funding and find the revenue for deferred maintenance and other issues," Chairman Dwayne Umbarger, R-Thayer, said.

The six public universities, including Kansas University, have said a lack of funding over the years has produced $660 million worth of needed repairs and renovations.

As proposed by Sebelius, Senate Bill 369 would have increased turnpike tolls by 25 percent over a six-year period.

That would have produced enough revenue to issue

$300 million in revenue bonds for universities' repairs. The toll funds then would have been used to pay the debt.

Sebelius' plan also included $200 million in low-interest loans and $75 million in new funding for a total package worth $575 million.

Steve Weatherford, head of the Kansas Development Finance Authority, said the toll surcharge - in addition to a 15 percent increase scheduled by the Turnpike Authority over the next seven years - still would have kept turnpike tolls in line with similar rural turnpikes in other states.

For a passenger vehicle, the combined increases would have raised the 85-cent toll between the West Lawrence and East Topeka terminals to $1.26. The toll over the same route for a semitrailer would have gone from $2.75 to $4.06.

But transportation lobbyists slammed the proposal, saying toll revenue should be used exclusively for turnpike operations.

"The maintenance crisis for the state's universities is not the highway user's problem," said Tom Whitaker, executive director of the Kansas Motor Carriers Association, which represents trucking companies. "It is a statewide problem that should be addressed by a statewide solution."

He said higher tolls would prompt truckers to look for less expensive routes.

The Kansas Turnpike Authority also criticized the proposal.

"User fee revenue from turnpike customers should remain with the turnpike and be used exclusively for the operation and maintenance of the turnpike for the benefit of those customers," said Michael Johnston, KTA president and chief executive officer.

Even the Kansas Board of Regents declined to push for the proposal.

Reginald Robinson, president and chief executive officer of the regents, said Sebelius' proposal was a significant effort but still fell short of providing revenue for future repairs.

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