On the street
Yes. I travel a lot … and I think Kansas has better road conditions than most (states), and I would like to see that continue.
Property taxes. Gas taxes. Vehicle-registration taxes.
All can finance road and highway construction, reconstruction and ongoing maintenance, and have been counted on for doing so for years.
But as state leaders grapple with dwindling state revenues, mounting program expenses and a public unhappy about the prospect of rising taxes, a new potential revenue source is pulling into the discussion for future transportation financing.
The possibility of assessing new tolls is on the radar.
“Everything is going to have to be on the table,” said state Rep. Gary Hayzlett, R-Lakin, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
Hayzlett and others acknowledge that with the economy still mired in a recession, leaders will need to explore a variety of revenue options to finance future needs.
Tolls just happen to be among the possibilities, and some residents in at least one part of the state say they’re ready to listen.
A survey of drivers in Douglas, Johnson, Leavenworth, Miami and Wyandotte counties found that the use of tolls finished second among the most favored ways to generate revenue for future transportation improvements. But that doesn’t mean they all want it.
Of 1,195 people surveyed for the state’s 5-County Regional Transportation Study, 44.8 percent of respondents ranked “use of tolls” among the top three revenue sources they would favor for such needs. That trailed only the assessment of impact fees on new developments, at 49.4 percent.
The support for tolls was higher in Douglas County, where 47.7 percent of respondents ranked tolls in their top three. Impact fees received the most support, at 49.4 percent, while assessing a usage fee — “the more you drive, the higher the fee” — received support from 28.5 percent.
Increasing the state’s gasoline tax, which customers pay each time they fill up at the pump, garnered 28.5 percent support in the region, and 32.9 percent backing in Douglas County.
Finishing last among all options across the board: increasing property taxes, at 7.7 percent for the region and 11.1 percent in Douglas County.
Such results don’t surprise Thomas Dow, state transportation planner for the Kansas Department of Transportation.
“Anything you have to pay once a year, you notice it more,” said Dow, who is project manager for the $1 million study, now in its first phase. “If you pay at the gas station or the toll booth, it’s not as much each time.”
But Dow cautions against reading too much into the results. Impact fees on new development couldn’t possibly generate enough revenue to finance all of the state’s transportation needs, he acknowledged.
The state’s last comprehensive transportation program, which expired in June, spent more than $13 billion on new roads, highways and other transportation modes during the past decade.
Tolls wouldn’t be able to carry the entire load, either. The state already has conducted studies for projects needed along Kansas Highway 10, Kansas Highway 7 and a section of Interstate 35 and U.S. Highway 69, he said, and the total estimated bill for those jobs exceeds $3 billion.
“Tolls are not going to solve every transportation problem that we have in the state,” Dow said. “They may be part of the solution, for some of the issues. But we have yet to proceed far enough along to have any of those answers.”
Consideration of the use of tolls likely won’t be limited to simple revenue collection for construction, he said. Tolls also might be considered as a way to reduce congestion on highways, by charging higher prices during peak times to reduce traffic demand.
The Kansas Turnpike Authority already charges tolls for its own construction, maintenance and operational activities, reflecting the use of “a true user fee,” said Lisa Callahan, a turnpike spokeswoman.
For now, the turnpike authority is the only agency authorized by state law to charge tolls for use of its roads. But that could change.
Callahan notes that tolls shouldn’t be regarded as a single method for tackling transportation needs. Sure, the turnpike has paid off its $147 million in original construction costs and $9 million in interest expenses from 50 years ago, using tolls.
But the state’s population is too low, and its relative traffic loads too sparse, to make toll roads pencil out in today’s economy, she said. To finance all of a new highway’s construction using the same toll levels now charged on the turnpike, the new highway would need to carry five to seven times as much traffic as the busiest stretch of the turnpike.
‘Roads cost so much’
“You couldn’t build the turnpike today with just the way we did it originally,” Callahan said. “While tolls are a good option, tolls alone will not build new construction, because the roads cost so much.”
In the Lawrence area, simply replacing two bridges over the Kansas Turnpike, overhauling two interchanges and handling related work is costing the turnpike $130 million for construction.
Hayzlett, who recently wrapped up two weeks of harvesting wheat, is looking forward to meeting this summer with other lawmakers to discuss transportation needs and potential financing mechanisms.
Tolls just might come up, he said, but he’s confident that entire effort will require plenty of study.
“Sure, it sounds really good: ‘Let’s toll,’” he said. “But it’s not as simple.”