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Published: Sunday, 7/30/2006

Higher tolls, no E-ZPass?

If anything stands as a monument to Republican misrule in this state, it is the Ohio Turnpike, which continues to resist increasingly common advances such as E-ZPass while looking to overcome its own deficiencies in the most elementary way possible: by boosting tolls.

The fixation with tolls and utter disdain for technology that would bring the toll road up to speed - literally - with several other states is a maddening reflection of the politics of payback.

The result, as we've argued before, is a 241-mile turnpike that is in danger one day soon of being surrounded by toll roads in other states that put their customers first with the E-ZPass system.

Eleven eastern and midwestern states, including Pennsylvania and Illinois, already have it. Indiana does not have an E-ZPass system yet, but a spokesman for the toll road told us Friday it is studying such a move and expects to move quickly toward it. The addition of Indiana to the network should come some time in 2007, the toll road official says.

Frequent toll road customers can zip through toll plazas in a dedicated lane without stopping - in some locations at speeds up to 50 miles per hour - and have the appropriate toll deducted from their account by an electronic reader. There is an initial startup cost, but turnpike commissions eventually save money because the need for so many toll collectors is reduced.

Customers of the Pennsylania Turnpike are using E-ZPass in steadily increasing numbers. Pennsylvania officials noted that income from the electronic tolling system accounted for a full 50 percent of all toll revenues in January - $20 million of the $40 million collected. That had never happened before.

Because the E-ZPass technology has become the standard, states which use it on their toll roads are able to offer reciprocity to motorists who have signed up in other states and have a transponder affixed to their vehicle window.

Frankly, ignoring E-ZPass is not a luxury the Ohio Turnpike Commission has.

The turnpike is part of an integrated turnpike system serving the eastern United States and the Midwest. Fiddling with fares instead of addressing electronic toll collection only keeps Ohio stuck in the past, holding back economic development while other states reap the benefits of modern technology.

The concept of just-in-time delivery in the trucking industry depends on keeping to a schedule; even a five-minute delay to pay a toll at a turnpike exit costs money. Trucking firms know the value of locating their terminals near turnpike exits that offer E-ZPass.

Part of the turnpike's problem over the years has been the habit of Republican governors of treating commission appointments as political thank you's.

The most egregious and embarrassing example: former commission chairman Tom Noe. Noe was unqualified, a charlatan with his own agenda, a man whose reprehensible behavior as a favored GOP insider produced the Coingate scandal. He never should have been given a seat on the commission, much less become its so-called leader.

For that matter we have absolutely no confidence that Ohio's turnpike will be managed any better if Ken Blackwell becomes this state's next governor. His solution? He proposes leasing the road to private operators, in effect punting away one of Ohio's most important assets.

We are sick and tired of the excuses. The E-ZPass network already includes Maine, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, New Hampshire, and Illinois.

The absence of E-ZPass in Ohio, and indeed the future of the turnpike, had better be an issue in the fall campaign for governor. We certainly hope, and so should all Ohioans, that Mr. Blackwell's Democratic opponent, Ted Strickland, has a far more visionary approach that he will soon share.

The Ohio Turnpike Commission is expected tomorrow to authorize public hearings on its proposed new fare schedule. They ought to be embarrassed to consider toll increases when other issues, specifically E-ZPass, remain unresolved.

Every day the Ohio Turnpike Commission ignores the benefits of E-ZPass is another day Ohio's toll road is an increasingly isolated impediment to progress. The time to turn that around is now.



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