Bell tolls on turnpike


Many Ohio roads and bridges desperately need repair. The $7.6 billion transportation bill that Gov. John Kasich is set to sign on Monday may not be the best way to address these needs, but it is a plan — provided the state lives up to the promises the measure includes.

Ohio got a grade of C-minus in a new survey of roads and bridges by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The good news: Ohio did better than the nation as a whole, which got a D. The bad news: 2,462 bridges in the state are structurally deficient, and the quality of 42 percent of Ohio roads is “poor” or “mediocre.”

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Mr. Kasich plans to upgrade the state’s crumbling infrastructure by selling $1.5 billion in bonds backed by Ohio Turnpike toll revenues, quadrupling the turnpike’s debt to $2 billion. The bond money is to be used to leverage $1.5 billion in federal matching funds. Also using revenue from the state’s 28-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax, the governor says Ohio will be able to fix or replace roads and bridges across the state in years rather than decades.

Increasing the pace of road and bridge repair and replacement will create thousands of new, good-paying jobs. That will give a needed boost to Ohio’s still-recovering economy.

Still, a modest increase in state fuel taxes would have been a better way to fund the road spending. It’s reasonable to expect people who use Ohio roads and bridges the most to pay to maintain them. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s better than spending turnpike tolls to repair bridges hundreds of miles away.

As he sold his proposal, Governor Kasich offered assurances that 90 percent of the money raised from the bond sale would be used for projects in northern Ohio. He also suggested there would be limits on turnpike toll increases.

These were goals rather than promises, but state lawmakers from northern Ohio fought to write them into the transportation bill — with enough room to discard them should the need arise. The governor should resist the temptation to veto these provisions when he signs the bill.

More important, though, is what happens once the bonds are sold. The promise that 90 percent of the bond money will be spent within 75 miles of the turnpike (about as far from the toll road as Lima) does not provide an excuse to divert fuel-tax revenue from northern Ohio.

The new measure freezes turnpike tolls for 10 years for motorists who travel fewer than 30 miles between exits and use E-ZPass. But it says nothing about the governor’s vow that tolls on other drivers would be limited to inflation growth.

The Kasich administration should provide reasonable assurance that the bond money will not replace road aid the region otherwise would have gotten. And it needs to keep its pledge on toll increases, because too-high rates would threaten the revenue needed to repay the bonds.