Lawmaker wants Kansas Turnpike brought under state umbrella

? The Kansas Turnpike Authority would be abolished and its powers and functions transferred to the state Department of Transportation under a measure before the Legislature.

State Rep. Bill Feuerborn, D-Garnett, who authored House Bill 2178, said Monday that lawmakers should consider the proposal because of the state’s huge budget deficit.

“We need to look at all the assets the state has,” said Feuerborn, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Lawmakers face an immediate shortfall of $186 million, which could grow to nearly $1 billion by the start of the next fiscal year on July 1.

Feuerborn said tolls that the Turnpike Authority charges along the 236-mile road could be used as a “revenue stream” for state government.

Plus, he said, the legislation that established the Turnpike Authority had envisioned that turnpike operations would be turned over to the state, once the cost of building the highway had been paid.

The turnpike is governed by a five-member board: the chairs of the House and Senate transportation committees; the secretary of the Department of Transportation; and two members appointed by the governor.

Lisa Callahan, spokeswoman for the Turnpike Authority, said authority officials hadn’t yet analyzed the legislation and would prefer to withhold comment until they had.

She said that Feuerborn was right that the original law setting up the authority allowed the transfer of the turnpike to the state when it was clear of debt. But, she said, while the original debt to build the turnpike has been paid, the authority has continued borrowing funds to make improvements, such as the current $140 million project to replace the bridges over the Kansas River in Lawrence.

Tolls are a major source of revenue to operate the turnpike and pay off the loans.