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Published: Saturday, 10/16/2004

Subsidizing truck tolls

THE plan by state leaders to subsidize the trucking industry's use of the Ohio Turnpike says plenty about Ohio's misplaced funding priorities. As the statewide budget crisis looms - from education to health care - Gov. Bob Taft is offering a generous financial incentive package to the trucking industry to bring business back to the turnpike.

The governor said the state would cover a huge chunk of turnpike debt to offset the cost of lowering the toll rate for truckers. Financially challenged state agencies and departments should be so lucky.

To no one's surprise, truck drivers left the turnpike in droves when the Ohio Turnpike Commission hiked tolls by nearly 82 percent over a four-year period in the 1990s. Truck traffic quadrupled on many toll-free and often two-lane secondary routes across northern Ohio, making them exceedingly dangerous.

We're for minimizing that risk but not certain this will do it. Coupled with higher speed limits for trucks on the turnpike, it may only relocate the danger.

For years the truck problems on congested east-west routes like State Rt. 2, U.S. 6, and U.S. 20 have been virtually ignored by the state. Infrastructure changes to reduce traffic risks on the two-lane roads remained on hold. More effective law enforcement on the alternate roads has long been recommended to stop speeding and overweight trucks avoiding the turnpike and its mandatory weight scales.

But only when truck revenue dropped dramatically on the turnpike did the state get serious about the plight of secondary roads and affected communities. To lure trucks back to the toll road and revoke the free pass trucking violators enjoyed on parallel routes, the governor added 25 highway patrol troopers to better police the parallel routes.

That's a good thing, unlike earlier action to increase truck speed limits on the turnpike. Ignoring consistent opposition to higher truck speeds on the pike from the highway patrol, the turnpike commission along with Governor Taft and state transportation leaders gave 18-wheelers weighing 80,000 to 90,000 pounds the freedom to go even faster on the toll road. Never mind the safety risks to the motoring public.

To allow the turnpike to reduce truck tolls an average of 25 percent during an 18-month trial period beginning in February, the Ohio Department of Transportation will subsidize nearly all of the costs to offset the rate cut. In addition, the department will pick up a one third of the turnpike's debt over the next decade at a cost of $23 million a year- whether the toll reduction trial continues.

The tax money to subsidize truck tolls and pay for extra police on the side routes will come from ODOT's $1.8 billion construction budget, which will necessarily eliminate some infrastructure improvement projects across the state.

Whoever came up with the scenario to introduce faster truck speeds on the turnpike and have the state foot the bill for lower truck tolls, turnpike debt, and added patrol ought to be confined to a cramped toll booth for the term of the experiment.

Tax revenues meant to benefit all Ohioans should not be diverted to the Ohio Turnpike to cover a rate decrease extended as a way to curry favor with the trucking industry.



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