The Ohio Senate seems ready to join the House in approving Gov. John Kasich’s plan to borrow against Ohio Turnpike tolls to raise billions of dollars for road improvements across the state. But before the measure becomes law, it needs more explicit guarantees that the plan will neither shortchange northern Ohio — including the Toledo area — nor permit excessive toll increases.
Under the proposal, the state Turnpike Commission would sell $1.5 billion in bonds that would be repaid from future tolls. That would increase the turnpike’s total debt to more than $2 billion.
The Kasich administration expects federal and local aid to match the bond proceeds, yielding $3 billion for road and bridge repair and construction. The state projects a $1.6 billion shortfall in money to meet its most urgent road needs.
Some lawmakers and local officials, mostly Democrats, complain that Mr. Kasich has reneged on a promise to earmark 90 percent of the revenue from the bond sales for road projects in northern Ohio, where the turnpike runs. They say he also is backtracking on commitments to freeze turnpike tolls for 10 years on E-ZPass trips of 30 miles or less in passenger vehicles and to limit all other toll increases to the rate of inflation.
The critics’ assertion is somewhat overstated; from the time they introduced the plan, administration officials conceded that the 90-percent figure was a goal rather than a mandate. They now say that imposing too-tight limits on toll rates could make it harder to sell the bonds and would require higher interest rates.
But if such language is not to be written into the turnpike bill, the governor’s office and the Ohio Department of Transportation need to be much more forthcoming than they have been about how they will prioritize the projects the bond proceeds would pay for.
How binding is the definition of “northern Ohio” as anything north of U.S. 30? How will the bonding plan accommodate necessary turnpike maintenance?
And even if the 90-percent share is achieved, the administration needs to provide reasonable assurance that it will not divert fuel-tax revenue from northern Ohio in such a way that the bond money merely replaces road aid that the region otherwise would have gotten.
The House-passed bill includes language about spending bond money on road projects that have a “nexus” to the turnpike. That description is so vague as to be meaningless. Similarly, the House bill is essentially — and unacceptably — silent on future turnpike toll increases.
A prudent increase in Ohio’s fuel taxes remains a better, fairer way to raise money for road and bridge projects than Mr. Kasich’s turnpike scheme. But if the tax-averse governor and legislature balk at such a straightforward proposal, they at least should not run a shell game with the turnpike bond money.
Finding a new source of revenue to accelerate long-deferred road work throughout Ohio has obvious appeal to the governor and those lawmakers who face re-election next year. But given the importance of both the state’s and this region’s highway network to economic recovery and job growth, the governor’s plan can’t be allowed to proceed at the expense of the turnpike’s users or its home communities.