South Lawrence Trafficway threatens to cut into Kansas Turnpike revenue

photo by: Associated Press

Motorists drive along the Interstate 70 portion of the Kansas Turnpike, past a rest area near Linwood, Kan., Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

? Officials at the Kansas Turnpike Authority said Wednesday that they’re keeping a close eye on traffic volume between Kansas City and Lawrence, fearing that the newly completed South Lawrence Trafficway could take a significant volume of traffic, and thus revenue, off of the Turnpike.

“We have noticed traffic changes, both increases and decreases at toll plazas in that area,” KTA spokeswoman Jeri Biehler said. “Any time there is a major traffic change, it takes three to four months for traffic to normalize. At this point in time, we are waiting to see what that traffic does and how things shift.”

Biehler responded to questions Wednesday after the KTA issued its latest annual report, which, among other things, details the volume of traffic at all the different toll gates of the 232-mile Turnpike and the number of vehicles getting on and off the roadway at each interchange.

According to that report, nearly 40 million vehicles got on and off the Turnpike in the fiscal year that ended June 30. The five terminals between the Lawrence-Lecompton exit and the eastern gate near Kansas City handled nearly a third, or 12.7 million of those vehicles.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that all of those 12.7 million vehicles were traveling between Kansas City and Lawrence, Biehler noted. Many of those vehicles were traveling to or from other locations.

But she said the stretch of the Turnpike between Kansas City and Topeka is by far the busiest stretch of the entire roadway. The report showed that well over half of all vehicles — 53.7 percent — passed through the gates at the eight interchanges along that stretch.

The busiest single stretch of the Turnpike, according to the report, is the 14-mile stretch between the east Topeka and Lecompton interchanges, where more than 21,000 vehicles pass in each direction on an average day.

The next busiest is the eight-mile stretch between the east Lawrence exit and the Tonganoxie-Eudora interchange, which handles nearly 19,000 vehicles in each direction on a daily basis.

Under the Turnpike’s current toll structure, a passenger vehicle pays $2.50 to travel between the Lecompton interchange and the eastern terminal near Kansas City. The toll is $3 between the eastern terminal and the east Topeka exit.

With completion of the SLT, however, someone traveling from west Lawrence to Overland Park can shave several miles off the trip and pay no toll. And a person driving from Topeka to Overland Park can also shave off miles and pay only $1 in toll to get off the Turnpike at Lecompton instead of paying $3 to go all the way to the eastern terminal and then using K-7 or Interstate 435 to head south to Johnson County.

The annual report does not break down how much revenue is collected at each toll gate, but for the year the Turnpike generated just under $108.5 million in tolls, an 8 percent increase over the previous year.

KTA also generated $5.5 million in concessionaire rentals, primarily from the restaurants, convenience stores and fuel pumps at service areas along the Turnpike. The Lawrence service area was the second-busiest of the six facilities along the route, with 13.8 million vehicles passing through it, generating $4 million in gross restaurant sales and selling 7.9 million gallons of motor fuel.

Topeka was the busiest service area, with 15.4 million vehicles passing through it, generating $4.7 million in restaurant sales and 7.9 million gallons of motor fuel sales.

The report also notes that passenger cars account for nearly 89 percent of all the traffic on the Turnpike, with commercial vehicles, including tractor trailers, making up the rest. But commercial vehicles account for more than a third — $37.3 million — of all the toll revenue.

Biehler said tolls are based on the number of axles on a vehicle, not on the weight of the vehicle.

A passenger car, with two axles, pays $2.50 to travel from the Lecompton exit to the eastern terminal, while a single-container tractor trailer with five axles pays $5.

If the rates were based on weight, however, the difference would be much greater.

The average passenger vehicle on the road today weighs about 4,000 pounds, or one ton per axle, according to EPA figures. That’s the average of everything between a subcompact car to a large SUV or van.

In Kansas, the weight limit for tractor trailers is 34,000 pounds, or 17 tons, per tandem axle. That additional weight puts more stress on the road surface, increasing the need for frequent maintenance and repairs.

Biehler, however, said it would not be practical to base tolls on vehicle weight because it would require KTA to maintain accurate scales and because it would result in drastically higher tolls for the trucking industry.

“That would be a deterrent (for trucks to use the Turnpike),” she said.