Kansas Lawmakers Vote To Continue Transportation Partnership

By John Celock

The Kansas House of Representatives voted to continue the close relationship between two transportation agencies after receiving assurances that the Kansas Turnpike would not become a piggy bank for the rest of the state.

The House voted Wednesday to continue having the Kansas Department of Transportation and the Kansas Turnpike Authority work together on shared services, including having the KTA use KDOT resources for maintenance projects and purchasing jointly. The two agencies were placed in partnership in 2013, when concern was expressed that KTA funds would be used for KDOT projects or other areas of the state budget. KTA roads are funded by tolls.

Rep. Melissa Rooker (R-Fairway), who presented the bill on the floor on behalf of the House Transportation Committee, noted the concerns from two years ago when describing the legislation to her colleagues.

“Sometimes skepticism is healthy and 2 years ago we had healthy skepticism with this partnership,” she said. “These are changes that will facilitate it. By statute we can’t move the funds for any other use.”

The issue of transportation funds being used for other projects has been heavily debated this year after Gov. Sam Brownback (R) proposed diverting $240 million from the state highway fund to fund other parts of the state budget over the last two years. The House Appropriations Committee has given preliminary approval to Brownback’s plan.

Rooker said the partnership has seen effiencies for the state and that no opposing testimony was given to the transportation panel during a hearing on the bill. Under the terms of the bill state Transportation Secretary Mike King would continue to hold oversight over the KTA as the turnpike’s director.

Rep. Adam Lusker (D-Frontenac), the ranking minority member of the Transportation Committee, announced his support for the legislation. Rep. Barbara Ballard (D-Lawrence) sought assurances from Rooker during the debate that KTA funds would not be used for other projects.

“The concern has been is that we use so much money from the Department of Transportation that it was quoted that one reason we were downgraded was we were too dependent on one source of funding,” Rooker said. “Would we be tempted to go to the KTA to get the money we need? We heard we can’t, they are in separate pots. I hope we can continue to do it.”

Other lawmakers have praised the bill’s passage. House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Celock Report that he sees benefits of continuing the relationship, noting that it will save the state money long term.

“As long we are not putting ourselves in a position where KTA is financing KDOT projects or government outside of KTA roads, I think any of the improvements that we can make in efficiencies between the two organizations will be positive,” Claeys said. “Naming someone the head of it will not make a huge difference in efficiency. But it moves them in the right direction of having a collective buying force and sharing expertise. When it comes to the roads themselves, people are paying for KTA roads specifically and those dollars need to be dedicated to KTA.”