Now that Washington has reversed itself — again — and decided to give the state $1.5 million to research options for the Ohio Turnpike, Gov. John Kasich can put the pedal to the floor on his plan to lease the 241-mile toll road.
The Federal Highway Administration rejected the initial grant request after Ohio Democrats in Congress complained that the outcome of the turnpike study was predetermined. Republican lawmakers applied some pressure of their own, and a few language tweaks earned the federal agency's green light.
Mr. Kasich's avowed preference is to hand over the toll road to private investors, who will pay the state billions of up-front dollars in return for the right to collect more billions of dollars in tolls over perhaps 40 or more years.
He argues that the state Transportation Department soon will not have enough money to maintain roads and bridges, let alone undertake new projects.
He warns that federal funding is uncertain, even as Republican lawmakers continue to block President Obama's plan to invest in infrastructure. The governor says Ohio needs creative ideas to leverage assets — business-speak for borrowing against future revenues.
The carrot the governor offers northern Ohioans is that at least half the turnpike lease revenue would be spent on projects north of U.S. 30, which runs from Van Wert to East Liverpool. Much of the rest would fund road projects across the state. An unspecified amount would repair local bridges and support mass transit.
Many people in the northern tier ask why any of the money should be spent in other parts of the state where major highways are free. But the larger question remains: Why do this at all?
Mr. Kasich has backed off early projections that leasing the toll road would bring in $3 billion, $600 million of which would go to paying off its debt. Instead, he now says billions of dollars would be realized. Many billions more, of course, would go to the leaseholder.
Potential bidders want the revenue created by the turnpike. Last year, $232 million was collected in tolls, a figure projected to rise to $246 million in 2012 with a toll increase in January. The only ways to increase turnpike revenue are to increase traffic, raise tolls, or reduce labor, maintenance, and overhead costs.
Next door, travelers complain that tolls on the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road, which that state leased in 2006 to a Spanish-Australian group, have nearly doubled. Ohioans worry that privatizing the turnpike will mean a decline in maintenance and the loss of as many as 1,000 jobs.
A Quinnipiac University poll last month reported that 56 percent of Ohio voters said they thought leasing the turnpike is a bad idea. Fewer than one in three think it's a good idea. Nearly two-thirds of respondents in northwest and northeast Ohio reject the proposal.
Most Ohioans appear to agree that the short-term benefits of leasing the turnpike don't justify the long-term costs and potential problems. Mr. Kasich needs to read the road signs and hit the brakes.
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