LET S begin with the bottom line, because you have to admit it s an attention-grabber: $4 billion to $6 billion.
That s how much Ohio could expect to receive in exchange for leasing the Ohio Turnpike to a private operator. Four billion to six billion dollars, free and clear.
A windfall like that could fund economic development projects, infrastructure improvements, and job-producing grants and loans. The bulk of it would be spent in the northern tier of Ohio, since drivers here have been paying the tolls for years.
Leasing the turnpike could be just the jolt our battered economy needs to recover its footing. Our neighbors are already figuring that out.
Indiana walked away with $3.8 billion and Chicago pocketed $1.83 billion after executing lease agreements for their toll roads.
Indiana s profit was used to launch the largest building program in its history. At one stroke our seemingly insurmountable transportation gap will be closed, declared Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell is seeking private bids to lease the Pennsylvania turnpike. The alternatives (for raising money) are limited, he said. Doing nothing is not an option.
Additional states are also looking into using this dormant asset to generate economic and transportation dollars. In New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine announced he is looking at a lease to fund economic development programs and to pay off state debt.
The history of the turnpike is well known to northern Ohioans. More than 50 years ago, the road was built with the understanding that the tolls would come off when it was paid for. That day never arrived, however. Fifty years later, the annual budget for the turnpike still includes $50 million for debt repayment.
The Ohio Turnpike Commission is self-perpetuating. Income is plowed back into maintenance and well-appointed rest stops, but beyond the exits, the state enjoys little benefit.
Leasing the turnpike to a private concern would allow the state to free the trapped value of this asset, extracting the equity from the road and distributing it more widely to benefit the state and its citizens.
Critics have suggested that maintenance and safety might slip under a private operator, but such concerns can be resolved in the contract. Language can be written to prevent the operator from raising tolls unilaterally or to set limits on toll increases. Indiana has a 103-page lease covering these issues and more, including employment.
What could Ohio do with this windfall?
Under a draft proposal from my organization, Road to Work, we suggest that at least 25 percent of the funds go directly to the counties and communities that are impacted by the turnpike.
Counties along the turnpike would be divided into three tiers depending on proximity to the turnpike. For instance, Cuyahoga, Lorain, and Lucas counties would be in the first tier and would receive an estimated $40 million each. Cities and communities through which the turnpike passes would also receive compensatory funds from the lease agreement.
Ohio is facing major transportation challenges. ODOT recently reported it will be forced to increase borrowing by $600 million over the next two years, and has already deferred or cancelled $450 million in new construction projects between 2007 and 2012. An infusion of lease-generated cash would go a long way toward easing this squeeze.
The money could also be used to jump-start the long-awaited passenger rail project so vital to the state s economic future. It is way past time to link our major cities with passenger rail to create new jobs and to promote travel and tourism.
While our neighboring states are considering or executing leases, Ohio needs to give this serious consideration. Experts predict that the states who work out leases early in the process will be in the best position to leverage maximum profits, which is why Pennsylvania is moving so quickly.
Pennsylvania Governor Rendell was quite correct when he said, Doing nothing is not an option.
But doing nothing is always an option. In Ohio s case, it would be a terrible mistake.
James Seney is chairman of Road to Work Ohio, www.roadtoworkohio.org, and a former mayor of Sylvania.