Time to tank the turnpike tolls?

KTA toll plaza (KSN File Photo)

WICHITA, Kansas – Dave Nelson is a veteran of Kansas roadways, he’s been driving big rigs across the Sunflower State for nearly 25 years and he’s no fan of the Kansas Turnpike.

“I think there’s another way. I avoid toll roads at all cost,” said Nelson.

Nelson says he goes out of his way to avoid the Kansas Turnpike.

“These roads are already bought and paid off anyway. I think in my opinion, they came out with the toll roads pay the road off. The roads are paid off. But, they found look the money we’re making by keeping it tolled. Personally, I think that’s ridiculous,” said Nelson.

EXTRA | Interview with Tom Whitaker from the Kansas Motor Carriers Association
EXTRA | Interview with Robert Poole from the Reason Foundation

Even though Dave doesn’t drive it, plenty of others do. On average, nearly 100,000 vehicles use the Turnpike daily. In 2014, 36.1 million vehicles drove on the Turnpike. Many of those drivers, like Tom Mullaney, aren’t opposed to the tolls.

“There are some places in the United States that we pay tolls, that the maintenance on the upkeep is so poor it’s just not worth it, Oklahoma to be specific. But, here in Kansas I run the toll roads a lot and I don’t mind paying. I don’t mind paying at all,” said Mullaney.

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Click to view the history of the Turnpike (courtesy Turnpike Authority)

The Kansas Turnpike Authority was created as a quasi-public entity in 1953. Its job was to build and maintain the Turnpike. Construction began in 1954 and 22 months later it was finished in 1956.

The original $160 million in bonds used to build it weren’t paid off until 1994, but the Turnpike Authority says no promise was ever made to remove the tolls after that happened. Steve Hewitt, who is the CEO of the KTA, says more bonds were issued for Turnpike maintenance and safety projects.

“When you use bonds to fund the project, the bonds have a maturity date. The new bonds were let for improvements, road improvements, bridges, interchanges, those types of things that have continued even through today,” said Hewitt.

The KTA receives no funding from the Kansas Department of Transportation. KTA Officials say it solely relies on toll funding and other fees from gas stations and restaurants that do business on the Turnpike.

According to Hewitt the KTA receives zero state or federal gas tax dollars.

“The cost of the turnpike it is, what it is. There are costs to maintain it. You have those ongoing infrastructure costs to maintain it, and to keep the tolls at a rate to make sure to fund those types of things. The bonds were paid off, new bonds were issued; it’s continued to evolve throughout the history of the turnpike. Today, we currently have over $200 million in bonds; we’re required to have tolls to pay for those bonds.”

RELATED LINK | Turnpike Authority 2014 Annual Report

Today, the KTA has $219 million in bonds plus, and additional $147 million in interest to pay. That debt won’t be paid off until 2040.

KDOT and the KTA merged in 2013, but according to legislation, no toll funds can be used for other state projects.

Unlike other states that have many toll roads, Kansas only has one. The Kansas Turnpike is 236 miles long. In 2013 the KTA earned $94 million in toll revenue. The KTA did even better for fiscal year 2014-2015, collecting $102 million in toll revenue. Here’s how the spending breaks down:

Daily Turnpike traffic for 2013 (Entry and Departure at each tollbooth)
Daily Turnpike traffic for 2013 (Entry and Departure at each tollbooth)
  • $44 million – Turnpike maintenance
  • $23 million – Bond payments
  • $22 million – Other turnpike projects
  • $13 million – Surplus for rainy day projects

Turnpike drivers like T.J. Ware believe if you remove the tolls, the road would go bad.

“They probably would look like I-35 in Oklahoma, just full of holes, just not well kept,” said Ware.

But, others like Michelle Ryan say find the money and make the road free.

“The price we have to pay, I don’t like them for the price we have to pay,” said Ryan.

CEO of the KTA Steve Hewitt says a new funding source would have to be found if the tolls are removed.

“If you take tolls away you have to find a way to fund the road. So, how do you do that? That’s not a question I can answer today. But, I just know right now we have a very solid financial model that works and we’re going to move forward that way,” said Hewitt.

If the tolls are gone, more than likely the fuel tax would have to be increased. Right now, we’re paying 24 cents a gallon. Some transportation experts believe it would have to be increased by as much as 15 cents a gallon, to cover the cost of maintaining the roadway.

Critics like Dave Nelson argue, the state already has the money and isn’t using it correctly.

KDOT-Fiscal-Year-2014-300“I think they need to manage their money a lot better and they’ll be able to afford to. You know instead of taking our money and doing whatever they want to do with it. As far as our Highway Use tax, that’s enough money,” said Nelson.

KDOT had a hefty budget for fiscal year 2014 of nearly $1.7 billion. It breaks down like this:

  • 31% – Federal fuel tax – $523 million
  • 30% – Sales taxes – $501 million
  • 26% – State motor fuel tax – $441 million
  • 13% – Vehicle registration and permits – $211 million
  • Additional Income – Investment Earnings – $14 million

 

AUDIO | Steve Swartz from the Kansas Department of Transportation

 

Steve Swartz with KDOT says the state agency has no plans to assume the Turnpike’s debt or maintenance responsibilities.

“We’re not really at that point, having that discussion, just because its setup as a toll road, we’re not having to consider absorbing the turnpike without tolls in the state system,” said Swartz.

But, the future could be a different story. Swartz says some free roadways could become tolls one day.

“I’ve been telling people everything is on the table as far as the future of transportation funding. As the motor fuels tax becomes a less effective tax to keeping up the expenses of maintaining the Kansas system and the systems all over the country,” said Swartz.

As for Dave Nelson, he’ll continue taking the free back roads of Kansas. He says he won’t pay a dime in tolls to get his freight delivered.

“Personally, I will do everything I can to avoid toll roads. We do pay with every gallon of fuel we buy we do pay the highway use tax. So, I do think it’s a form of double taxation, personally,” said Nelson.

The Turnpike Authority respond to that question in their Frequently Asked Questions document stating that none of the motor fuel tax goes towards operating the Turnpike, even if it was gas purchased at a service area on the Turnpike. To find out more answers to some of the commonly asked questions about why the Turnpike tolls are necessary, click here.

In the past, the KTA has increased tolls every 3 years. The last time they were bumped up was 2 years ago. This spring the KTA Board could decide to increase tolls again based on financial modeling and staff recommendations.

TOLL INCREASE HISTORY

Year Class 2 – avg % Increase Class 5 & above – avg % Increase
1961 12% 5%
1962 (Class 2 only) 5% 0%
1965 10% 5%
1969  6% 6%
1976 10% 14%
1979  6% 10%
1980 10% 30%
1986  5% 10%
1991 (Class 5 only)  0% 12%
1995 10% 10%
2001  5% 5%
2004 Aug. 1  5% 5%
2007 July 1  5% 5%
2009 Oct. 1 15% for cash customers 5% for cash customers
2013 Feb. 1 10% for cash customers5% for K-TAG customers 5%

AUDIO | Interview with Tom Whitaker from the Kansas Motor Carriers Association


Audio | Interview with Robert Poole from the Reason Foundation

 

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