Archive for Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Kansas Turnpike a short-sighted prospect

January 25, 2006

Editor's note: This editorial appeared in Friday's edition of the Lawrence Journal-World. The Kansas Turnpike Authority has agreed to construct an interchange in Leavenworth County, at the intersection of County Road 1.

The short-term gain just doesn't seem to justify the long-term risk of selling or entering into a long-term lease agreement for the Kansas Turnpike.

Two major banking firms -- Citigroup and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. -- are trying to tempt state officials with deals they say could pump anywhere from $300 million to $3.15 billion into state coffers. Fortunately, the idea of turning one of the state's major thoroughfares over to a private operator isn't gaining much traction in Topeka.

The appeal of the arrangement comes from the quick infusion of money it would bring into the state treasury. However, all of the scenarios would include substantially higher tolls for drivers on the Kansas Turnpike -- the more the state is paid, the higher the tolls.

Long-term lease deals have been gaining attention since Goldman Sachs and Citigroup helped barter a $1.83 billion, 99-year lease of the 7.8-mile Chicago Skyway toll road to a Spanish-American partnership. Public-private road partnerships are common in Europe and Asia, the firms say, and the Kansas Turnpike is among the U.S. roads that would be attractive to private buyers.

Maybe so, but this doesn't seem like a time Kansas wants to be a guinea pig. There are many ways in which this scenario could be a disaster. Higher tolls would be likely to push more vehicles off the turnpike and onto non-toll roads. If turnpike revenues drop, the new owners likely would consider raising the tolls even higher or perhaps cutting back in other areas, such as maintenance. Turning maintenance on a major state highway over to a non-government entity seems like a risky business.

The one-time money that would come from such a deal isn't the kind of income on which legislators want to base the state budget. It could help balance the budget for a year or two, but it wouldn't be a long-range solution for the state's income demands.

Kansans have a love-hate relationship with the turnpike, which seems to be permanently under construction and was supposed to be paid off and toll-free years ago. But giving up state control of a highway that has a volume of nearly 34 million vehicle trips a year isn't a move the state should enter into lightly.

Even with the financial pressures now facing the state, this isn't the time to seriously consider a major change for the Kansas Turnpike.

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