Archive for Thursday, March 22, 2007

Free ride could be ending

Tolls may be in K-10’s future

March 22, 2007

Kendra Bearden pumped 12 gallons of gasoline into her car Tuesday at Eudora's KWIK Shop in preparation for her daily commute on Kansas Highway 10 to her job in Lenexa.

Reflecting on the $2.88 in state fuel sales tax revenue her purchase contributed for the construction and maintenance of Kansas highways, Bearden said she was doing enough to pay for state highway improvements.

She and other K-10 commuters on the freeway may soon be asked to do more as the Kansas Department of Transportation looks for ways to pay for the two added lanes a 2005 study showed would be needed within five years on the highway from K-7 to Interstate 435.

In comments before the Senate Ways and Means Committee in Topeka earlier this month, K-10 was flagged as a future toll road candidate because of its high traffic count.

"No, I don't want that," Bearden said. "I drive it every day. There's no other way to get there. I have to use K-10."

Motor fuel tax, a sales tax component and vehicle registration fees are the three sources of state funding for highway programs, said Kansas Department of Transportation director of planning and development Terry Heidner. But those sources might need supplementing as his department looks to the future and funding for a new transportation plan when the current $13 billion program expires in 2009, he said.

KDOT's triad of current funding sources aren't keeping up with the cost of building highways, Heidner said. And although motorists are driving more, added fuel tax revenue from increased consumption is offset by the more fuel-efficient vehicles car manufacturers are producing, he said.

Another concern as KDOT planners look ahead is that existing funding sources will continue to pay for the current program long after it expires. The state borrowed $995 million before this year to pay for programs in the 1999 comprehensive transportation plan and authority was given earlier this year to issue another $210 million in bonds this month to help complete the project list.

Those realities have KDOT looking at other funding options.

KDOT is currently reviewing needs, traffic and demographic trends and revenue projections in anticipation of working with the Legislature to develop the next transportation plan, Heidner said.

Part of that review would look at what other states are doing and that includes expansion of toll roads, Heidner said.

That option might also appeal to a Legislature reluctant to increase taxes and shy off another round of borrowing.

Heidner said legislators asked KDOT to study tolls for different Kansas roads. But he said no such study had been conducted for 15 years and K-10 had never been studied.

Eudora Mayor Tom Pyle thinks it should stay that way and opposes converting the highway to a toll road.

"I say it's a money grab," Pyle said. "I'm not for it at all.

"They're always looking for a way to get another nickel. I'm definitely against it."

Making K-10 a toll road would harm the Eudora economy and economic development because motorists would be reluctant to deal with the hassle of dealing with paying tolls, Pyle said.

Should the K-10 toll be proposed, he would fight it, Pyle said.

De Soto Mayor Dave Anderson was more open to the concept. Tolls could be limited to the new lanes, which would be reserved for those paying for express driving, he said.

"I think we can make it work with economic development," he said.

Anderson's idea that tolls be restricted to new lanes was a possibility, Heidner said.

"We'd have to take a look at that," he said. "Other states have what are called hot lanes where those wanting to drive in less congested traffic pay a toll and buses and car pools drive for free. I'm not saying it's going to happen on K-10, but it's something worth looking at."

Johnson County Commissioner John Segale of Shawnee said the county commission-appointed Transportation Future Focused Task Force he led last year recommended hot lanes as a way to add additional lanes to I-35.

"We didn't talk about it on K-10, but I think it makes a lot of sense," he said. "I know the federal government has money for a pilot program to build express lanes. It serves the public policy of reducing traffic in congested areas."

Johnson County residents and politicians frequently complain about the return on tax dollars the county sends to Topeka. Segale said residents needed to accept the cost on K-10.

"They'll pay more for it anyway," he said. "I think you want to do it as a user fee.

"If the rest of the state isn't willing to help and we think it's important for economic development, then we should be prepared to pay for it."

Moreover, Segale suggested that wouldn't be the only future toll road in the area. A north/south road from I-35 through the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant and north to the proposed new I-70 turnpike interchange near Tonganoxie would also be a toll road candidate, he said.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe's proposed intermodal and warehouse complex west of Gardner would provide the stimulus for the road, Segale said.

The project would require state participation because the county doesn't have the means to build the road without tolls and only the state has the authority to manage toll roads, Segale said.

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