Archive for Thursday, June 19, 2003

Viewpoints: Let’s settle the budget, not sell out the state

June 19, 2003

For sale: One picturesque city nestled amid the hills of northeastern Kansas, population 3,000. Hundreds of houses, infrastructure in place. Poised for commercial, industrial and residential growth. Sound financial condition. Bids may be submitted to Kansas state representatives.

No, Tonganoxie is not for sale.

But after learning last week that the state is talking about selling the Kansas Turnpike Authority, it raises the question: Has the state lost its collective mind?

Is there anything legislators would not consider selling to patch the hole in the state's budget?

Financially, the turnpike, which covers a 236-mile stretch from Kansas City to Oklahoma, is one of the best things Kansas has going.

According to its 2002 financial statement, KTA took in more than $67.5 million in tolls last year. After paying its bills, and socking away money in funds, the KTA ended the year with a $6.4 million operating income (profit).

"It's a cash cow," said R.J. Stephenson, a Tonganoxie accountant who looked at KTA's numbers last week.

The state would be foolish to sell KTA to make up for the Kansas financial crisis. No one knows at this point, what the KTA's pricetag would be. But a figure of $800 million has been mentioned. That would barely be enough to make up for one year's worth of state deficit. And then what?

Since the turnpike opened in 1956, it has been self supporting. KTA receives no tax dollars for operation. Moreover, because it is a toll highway, KTA is supported by all turnpike drivers -- whether they live in Kansas or in other states.

Use has grown through the years. In 1958, its first full year of operation, the turnpike served 3.6 million customers. By 2002, that number had grown to 31 million vehicles in one year.

KTA is thriving, thanks to good management, maintenance and fiscal responsibility.

One might ask: Would a new owner, particularly one located in a distant state, maintain the same quality roadways for which KTA is known?

It's doubtful. A distant corporate owner, more interested in dollars than in Kansas, could signal the beginning of a decline in quality of roads, which would gradually filter down to a decline in the number of users. Then, what would the new owner do when the revenue fell below expectations?

Kansans -- take a look. We may be low on state income right now, but selling our finest assets for a one-time fix is not the cure.

Write letters, pick up the phone, make people aware that the Kansas we know and love could be sold, piece by piece, if the price were right.

And while you're at it, just thank heaven that the state doesn't own the city of Tonganoxie. If it did, residents' worst nightmare futuristically might come true with the sound of these words: "Sold: To the highest bidder."

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