Gov. John Kasich says he wants to “unlock” the economic value of the Ohio Turnpike to help pay for job-creating highway and bridge improvements across the state. It’s reassuring that the turnpike plan the governor announced Thursday, in Toledo and elsewhere, would neither privatize this key state asset nor weaken the independence of its operating commission.
But when the General Assembly considers the proposal next year, lawmakers from the Toledo area and the rest of northern Ohio must ensure that the plan’s support of projects in other parts of the state does not come at the expense of the turnpike or the region it serves. Any effort to use revenue from the governor’s plan merely to replace road money that this part of the state now gets from other sources would invite deep skepticism.
Mr. Kasich wants to borrow money to pay for highway projects by issuing bonds backed by future turnpike toll revenue. His administration notes the interest rates for such long-term bonds are at historic lows.
Ohio Department of Transportation officials project a $1.6 billion deficit in funding for the state’s most urgent road needs, and another $8 billion shortfall for other projects on their to-do list. They say the turnpike plan would raise $1.5 billion, allowing the state to address these needs more quickly, as well as accelerating turnpike maintenance, reconstruction, and upgrades such as sound walls and new bridges.
They add that the new money could be matched by federal and local road aid. That would create a $3 billion pot for projects throughout the state, they say.
The governor and ODOT officials estimate that more than 90 percent of money from the bond sales would come back to northern Ohio, to help pay for such projects as rebuilding the I-75/I-475 junction in central Toledo. But they concede this figure is a goal, not a mandate.
At the same time, they point out that the turnpike commission would have to approve any use of the bond revenue. That authority, they claim, would offer an adequate safeguard against inappropriate diversion of money from the turnpike or northern Ohio. Critics contend that the bond revenue would largely substitute for, not supplement, other road aid that the region now receives.
Under Mr. Kasich’s proposal, turnpike tolls for E-ZPass passenger trips of 30 miles or less would be frozen for 10 years. Tolls for longer and truck trips could rise only at the rate of inflation — less than half the average 7-percent annual increases turnpike users have paid over the past two decades, ODOT says. The governor also says his plan would require no layoffs of turnpike workers.
The proposal would give the turnpike commission new responsibilities for infrastructure planning. That will require close collaboration between ODOT and the turnpike commission, which have not always worked well together.
We continue to believe that a straightforward increase in Ohio’s motor fuels tax would be a better way to pay for road improvements. The 28-cent-a-gallon tax on gasoline and diesel fuel has not risen in seven years; a modest boost would encourage Ohio motorists to drive more fuel-efficient vehicles and to plan their trips more carefully.
That would improve air quality and make Ohio less dependent on foreign oil. But Greg Murphy, ODOT’s chief of staff, calls the fuel tax “antiquated” and says Mr. Kasich “has no interest in raising taxes that would only hurt the economy.”
In the meantime, Governor Kasich deserves the opportunity to make his case that his turnpike plan can speed up needed improvements to the state’s transportation network without shortchanging northern Ohio. Lawmakers will need to make sure that the case is proven, not merely asserted.