Topeka The House on Friday gave preliminary approval to a bill that supporters said would encourage cooperation between the Kansas Turnpike Authority and the Kansas Department of Transportation, but opponents said the legislation marked the end of the road for the well-regarded turnpike.
State Rep. Joe Edwards, R-Haysville, expressed the sentiment of many opponents, saying the Kansas Turnpike was a major asset and that House Bill 2234 was an unnecessary intrusion into its operation. The measure was approved 78-40, and one more vote is required before final passage.
"What's going on here? We have the best 236 miles of turnpike in America," Edwards said.
At the start of the 2013 legislative session, Gov. Sam Brownback urged putting the Turnpike Authority under KDOT, saying it didn't make sense to have two highway agencies.
Brownback said the merger would save $30 million over two years, although KDOT Secretary Mike King has said he doesn't know how those savings would occur.
The bill before the House watered down Brownback's proposal to allow KDOT and KTA to contract with each other. "Two state agencies should be able to cooperate," said state Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence.
The bill also would allow toll revenue from the turnpike to be used for up to 10 miles on state highway projects that connect with the turnpike.
Opponents said the bill was the first step toward the Legislature taking tolls and revenues from the turnpike to pay for other state functions in the scramble for money in a revenue-starved budget.
"My fear is we are just one statute away after this to capture those cash reserves," said state Rep. Nile Dillmore, D-Wichita.
"I have great concern that at some point the fees that myself and constituents pay will not be invested in that asset but rather spent someplace else. That is nothing but a tax increase," said state Rep. Don Hill, R-Emporia.
But Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, said the turnpike, completed 60 years ago, should be debt-free by now. He compared the turnpike to an adult who "still lives with Mom and Dad. It's time to kick Junior out of the house."
The authority has approximately $200 million in reserves, but half of those funds are needed to help pay for bonds, according to Michael Johnston, president and chief executive officer of the KTA.
Johnston said the Turnpike Authority also is saving funds so that by the end of the decade it can replace numerous bridge decks without having to borrow any more.
Johnston wouldn't comment on the bill, saying that it's up to the Legislature to set policy for the state.