It could be that the best part of a new measure that appoints the Kansas Secretary of Transportation as the director of operations for the Kansas Turnpike is that the law will expire in July 2016.
Putting a two-year sunset provision in the law reportedly was intended to give state legislators an opportunity to see whether the partial merger of KDOT and KTA actually produced any of the savings and efficiencies that Gov. Brownback and KDOT Secretary Mike King predicted. Brownback indicated in his budget proposal that fully merging the two agencies would save the state $30 million in the next two years, but neither he nor King could tell legislators exactly where those savings would come from.
The proposal met with considerable opposition from legislators — some of whom represent areas along the turnpike — who saw nothing wrong with the current operation of the road and feared the measure was a power play to give the governor access to the KTA’s healthy reserve fund. To help protect the turnpike, the bill specifies that turnpike tolls can only be used for the operation of the turnpike. Some legislators expressed concern, however, that the law would be the first step in tapping both turnpike toll and reserve money to fund other highway projects or even general fund expenses.
At the very least, the new law raises many questions about the future of the turnpike’s funding and its leadership, especially after current KTA President and CEO Mike Johnston’s announcement on Friday that he would retire from that post on June 15. Johnston said he was not asked to resign and maintained that the new law was a “fairly minor” factor in his decision. Having served as a Democratic state legislator for 14 years, Johnston was gracious in withholding comment on the new law, saying it was the prerogative of the Legislature and governor to make such policy decisions.
It’s unfortunate that Johnston, who served as KDOT Secretary from 1991 to 1994, isn’t going to remain in his post at least for the new law’s two-year trial period. He has been a good steward of the state’s 236-mile toll road since taking over as CEO in 1995. The turnpike is consistently better maintained and safer than most other highways in the state and has seen steady upgrades during Johnston’s tenure. Depending on what happens to the KTA in the next several years, Lawrence may be thanking its lucky stars that major bridge replacements and a project to widen the turnpike to six lanes both east and west of Lawrence were completed in the last several years.
The next step for the KTA board isn’t entirely clear. The organization is losing its president and CEO, but, before hiring a replacement, board members probably need to answer the obvious questions about how the next person in that role would share authority with the new KTA director of operations/KDOT secretary.
There certainly is no reason these two agencies shouldn’t cooperate with one another, but there also is no indication that such cooperation wasn’t already taking place and little indication of exactly what Brownback and King are trying to accomplish with the new leadership structure.
What is clear is that changes are afoot. Kansans need to keep a watchful eye over the next two years to make sure those changes aren’t for the worse for the well-run and well-maintained Kansas Turnpike.