House pumps brakes on tweak to Kansas law allowing toll on new highway express lanes

Overland Park, KDOT exploring addition of two toll lanes on U.S. 69

By: - March 10, 2021 9:50 am
The Kansas House spiked a bill tweaking state law on placing tolls on new highway lanes after Overland Park and Kansas Department of Transportation officials expressed interest in adding toll lanes to U.S. 69. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas House spiked a bill tweaking state law on placing tolls on new highway lanes after Overland Park and Kansas Department of Transportation officials expressed interest in adding toll lanes to U.S. 69. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Johnson County transportation liaison Josh Powers can make public safety, economic development and convenience arguments for reliance on tolls to pay for construction of express lanes on what might be the busiest four-lane highway in Kansas.

He’s talking about U.S. 69 that slices a north-to-south route through Overland Park. It routinely suffers congestion during rush hour. Overland Park officials approached the Kansas Department of Transportation about widening the highway to six lanes. New northbound and southbound lanes would be referred to as “managed” lanes, which would be a first for Kansas. The new lanes would be available to any motorist — at a cost — interested in avoiding clogged traffic. The older lanes in both directions of the U.S. 69 corridor would remain toll free.

The debate is more weighty than dealing with aggravations of stop-and-go traffic, because transportation has served as a key determinant of economic change of Johnson County. Eighty-four percent of new jobs in Kansas between 2016 and 2019 were created in Johnson County. KDOT says commuters on U.S. 69 have become increasingly frustrated by rising travel times and the crash-a-day accident rate. As development continues in Johnson County, traffic volume on the highway is expected to double and travel times to triple by 2040.

Julie Lorenz, who is responsible for coordinating expenditure of nearly $1 billion in federal COVID-19 aid, urged the State Finance Council to spend $80 million on a broadened testing program. She concurred with a proposal to set aside $15 million more for testing. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Julie Lorenz, right, secretary at the Kansas Department of Transportation, said Overland Park officials have discussed with KDOT making use of a 2019 state law to rely on tolling to finance a portion of constructing two express lanes on U.S. 69 in Johnson County. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“Access to jobs, education and health care are critical to our economy and success as a community,” Powers said. “Johnson County supports the regional priority of an efficient, effective multimodal transportation program that will increase employer access to our workforce and attract, retain and enhance businesses to our metropolitan area.”

Despite enthusiasm from officials in Johnson County and at KDOT for exploration of the tolling concept, a bill designed to create greater flexibility in state law on creation of toll roads hit a speed hump last week in the Kansas House. The legislation would have refined a 2019 statute making it legal to incorporate tolls on new highway construction. It would have allowed toll revenue to pay for investment in additional lanes, but also be earmarked funding for technology, interchange and access-point work within the same highway corridor.

Republican and Democratic members in the House shared skepticism about toll roads, which appeared to foster confusion about intent of House Bill 2296. After an unrelated debate on a Leavenworth County landowner’s feud with the Kansas Turnpike Authority, the House voted 50-72 to shelve KDOT’s proposed modification to the state tolling law.

Julie Lorenz, the state transportation secretary, said discussion about a tolling project for U.S. 69 would continue as long as Overland Park officials were drawn to the concept for improving travel time reliability, congestion and community quality of life. In Overland Park, she said, the idea was that toll revenue could be relied upon by Overland Park to pay the city’s share of construction costs under a collaborative arrangement with KDOT.

KDOT said one cost study indicated the addition of two express lanes from 103rd Street to 151st Street on the highway could run about $300 million. A second phase of the project from 151st Street to 179th Street might cost $200 million, KDOT said.

“We are not pushing this on Overland Park,” Lorenz said. “We’re trying to provide communities an option or another way to raise local match. With the projected decline in federal and state gas tax revenue due to electric vehicles, we really need to find new ways to pay for our infrastructure at the state and local level.”

Under the proposed express-lane tolling system, electronic K-TAG readers or cameras would be deployed to collect fees from motorists. Highway signs would display the current price of the express lane, because that amount would fluctuate depending on density of traffic. Lines would be painted on the highway to direct drivers entering or leaving the express lanes.

Integration of tolls on U.S. 69 is expected to produce long-range savings to the state and city because the typical strategy of continuing to build more and more outside lanes will be curtailed, Lorenz said.

On a personal level, she said, there were times when vehicles must slow to less than 20 mph on U.S. 69. The special lanes might allow participating motorists to travel about 50 mph through those areas, she said.

Bipartisan opposition emerged in the Kansas House to block a bill that would modify a 2019 state law permitting the tolling of new highway lanes. It would allow toll revenue to pay for the original expansion and support subsequent projects in the same corridor. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

The House Transportation Committee amended the bill to allow public transportation vehicles access to express toll lanes at a reduced cost.

The Kansas Motor Carriers Association testified against an original provision of the bill that would let public transit vehicles on express lanes without paying a toll. The association also expressed doubt about diversion of toll revenue to support public transportation on the corridor.

“Those that pay tolls expect those dollars to be used on the toll project roadway and not used to subsidize other forms of transportation,” said Tom Whitaker, executive director of the state motor carriers organization.

The only toll highway in Kansas is maintained by KTA and covers 236 miles from the Oklahoma border to the Kansas City area.

Rep. Henry Helgerson, a Democrat from Wichita on the House Transportation Committee, said during the Kansas House debate on the toll reform bill that he relied on the turnpike when driving to Topeka. He also asserted that years ago promises were made to eventually make the Kansas Turnpike a toll-free highway.

“Every time I drive on the turnpike I keep remembering the promise that was made,” he said. “We’re going in the wrong direction in this whole thing.”

Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell, said he wasn’t thrilled with the idea of getting stuck behind transit buses in toll lane of a highway. He speculated KDOT would attempt to dramatically expand tolling in Kansas. However, state law currently forbids tolling on existing highway lanes and KDOT cannot toll a roadway without local community support.

“How long before they decide to make all lanes on 69 highway or one of your local highways a toll?” Tarwater said.

In response, Rep. Shannon Francis, the Republican from Liberal, said tolling would not become a dominant feature of highways in the state because the population in many areas was insufficient.

“There’s only a few roads in the state that actually have the volumes necessary for any type of tolling at all,” Francis said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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