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Published: Saturday, 4/16/2011

Turnpike turnover

Gov. John Kasich deserves the opportunity to show that leasing the Ohio Turnpike to a private operator would be a good deal for state taxpayers and motorists. But big questions remain to be answered before it becomes a done deal.

Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jerry Wray told The Blade’s editorial board this week that the turnpike is “not leveraged properly” to provide the greatest economic benefit to the state. He said leasing — not selling — the 241-mile toll road in northern Ohio has emerged as the most-discussed option. Governor Kasich’s budget proposal includes language that would accommodate such a “public-private partnership.”

Mr. Wray added the Kasich administration is considering other possibilities, such as making the turnpike part of the state’s highway system and using its revenue to repay road debt. An independent commission now manages the turnpike, sets toll rates, and contracts with the state   highway patrol for traffic enforcement.

Mr. Wray declined to speculate on the amount of money a turnpike lease would raise, although advocates say it could be more than $3 billion. He said the state would seek a sustained revenue stream rather than a one-time lump sum.

The director would not specify a lease term, but said he would prefer something shorter — “perhaps a lot shorter” — than Indiana’s 75-year toll-road lease.

He said any lease agreement would impose a ceiling on turnpike tolls. Such a measure might seem a tacit acknowledgement that a private operator would be likely to raise toll rates. But Mr. Wray said a lease also could expand technology, including the turnpike’s electronic system for automatic toll collection.

The state would impose strict performance standards for such things as snow removal and grass cutting, Mr. Wray said. Nor, he insisted, will ODOT agree to a non-compete clause that would prevent it from improving roads that run parallel to the turnpike. That would become an issue if higher turnpike tolls encouraged more trucks to use those roads.

This page has expressed skepticism in the past about privatization schemes involving the turnpike. They inevitably raise the question of whether government is giving up a valuable public asset in exchange for one-time money to plug a short-term budget hole. Mr. Wray said turnpike lease revenue would not go into the state’s battered general fund, but instead would be earmarked for maintenance and expansion of Ohio’s transportation system.

Revenue from the turnpike lease, he said, could pay for such northwest Ohio projects as improvements to the Port of Toledo and upgrades to the congested I-75/475 interchange.

Other issues a lease deal would have to resolve include the future of the turnpike commission, labor agreements that cover turnpike employees, and law-enforcement and public-safety provisions.

Opponents express skepticism that future state officials would honor political commitments made now to gain support for a lease deal. Others argue the privatization deal would benefit other parts of the state at the expense of northern Ohio, noting that state government broke a promise to end tolls on the turnpike when its construction debt was repaid.

Mr. Wray said the Kasich administration will perform “due diligence” before proceeding with any plan to lease the turnpike. Once ODOT solicits lease proposals, it could take six to 18 months to award a contract.

During that period, state officials must find ways to redeem Mr. Wray’s pledge that a new operator would give Ohio motorists turnpike service that is “just as good — and maybe better.” Only then could a lease deal go forward.



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