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Published: Friday, 1/11/2013

Detours and dead ends

Gov. John Kasich’s plan to pay for highway and bridge improvements across the state by “unleashing value” locked in the Ohio Turnpike deserves a fair hearing, but supporters and opponents have given Ohioans few answers up to now.

Mr. Kasich proposes to have the Ohio Turnpike Commission sell $1.5 billion in bonds backed by future turnpike revenues. The bonds would leverage up to $1.5 billion in local and federal matching funds, creating a pool of as much as $3 billion to jump-start work on the state’s backlog of unfunded highway projects.

The turnpike plan has several strengths: It would remain under the control of an independent state agency; money would be borrowed at low interest rates; and thousands of jobs and new state tax revenues would result from highway projects.

Fixing the state’s crumbling highways and bridges would make the state more attractive to businesses planning to expand or relocate. A modern transportation infrastructure would help Ohio compete in the global economy.

But the plan also raises serious questions: Can the Turnpike Commission and the Ohio Department of Transportation work together? Will highway projects in other parts of the state be completed at the expense of turnpike maintenance? Is it ethical to borrow in a way that circumvents — but apparently does not break — state laws governing the debt ceiling?

The Kasich administration said its goal is to spend up to 90 percent of turnpike funds in northern Ohio. Does that mean the region will forfeit fuel-tax revenue and federal matching funds that also pay for highway projects?

These questions must be answered in a straightforward and factual way. So far, however, most of the debate has been misleading and political.

Mr. Kasich was less than accurate when he claimed that his proposal would lower tolls on the turnpike. Tolls would be frozen for 10 years for EZ Pass users who travel 30 miles or less on the turnpike. Increases on everyone else would be limited to the inflation rate. Only in politics could something that rises slowly or stays the same be described as a decrease.

And the governor has yet to address the complaint that borrowing against future turnpike revenues is a one-time fix. It doesn’t solve the underlying problem: Current revenues don’t raise enough money to pay for all the state’s highway construction needs.

Both supporters and opponents must do a better job of debating the merits of the plan — and answering questions affecting everyone in Ohio.

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