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Published: Saturday, 1/21/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Kasich denies turnpike-lease ploy

Critics say shelving of projects was effort to push for privatization

BY JIM PROVANCE AND DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

COLUMBUS -- Gov. John Kasich insisted Friday that this week's proposed shelving of high-profile transportation projects such as the I-75/I-475 interchange overhaul in Toledo was not an effort to increase public pressure for leveraging the Ohio Turnpike for cash.

"For many, many governors' terms, Ohioans have been misled, plain and simple: 'You want a project, we'll get you a project. Don't worry about it,' " Mr. Kasich said. "Well, we're $1.6 billion short. … No more misleading people about this."

The state Transportation Review Advisory Council, which helps the state set funding priorities for major highway and bridge projects, this week released draft revisions of its plan, putting a number of big-ticket Ohio Department of Transportation projects on the back burner and dramatically extending completion time lines of many projects that were previously considered to be on a fast track.

Department Director Jerry Wray said $1.6 billion in projects that had been promised can't be paid for under current revenue, which consists largely of federal highway funds and state gas-tax proceeds.

Although planning for major rebuilding and widening of I-75 through much of northwest Ohio will proceed, the proposed plan would postpone indefinitely the final $173 million phase of the ongoing I-75/I-475 interchange reconstruction project in Toledo.

Construction of a McCord Road underpass to replace a busy railroad crossing at the Norfolk Southern tracks in Holland would be postponed to fiscal 2028 from fiscal 2015.

The Republican governor said suggestions that the revisions were done to boost the concept of leasing the 241-mile toll road to a private operator or borrowing against it are getting out of hand.

"I've just been told by Jerry Wray that we have severe maintenance issues on the turnpike," he said. "We're always told that maintenance is fantastic, this is a great road, and that if we were to privatize the turnpike -- or lease the turnpike, thus maintaining underlying control -- we'd have maintenance problems. Well, it looks like we have maintenance problems now, which would, of course, reduce the value of that turnpike."

But State Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) said a back-door campaign to promote turnpike privatization is the only way she can explain how the transportation department's financial forecast darkened dramatically just a year after the state adopted a plan that included funding to build the McCord railroad underpass. The projects being delayed disproportionately hurt northern Ohio, where resistance to a possible turnpike lease has been strongest, she said.

"It wasn't the mismanagement of previous administrations," she said Friday. "It's the desire of this administration to sell our public assets. … The northern end of Ohio gets the short end of the stick. There's no other conclusion. We're being held hostage, and he's got us where he wants us."

Warren Henry, the director of transportation for the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, disagreed, saying that by his reckoning, the only part of Ohio that did well in the major-projects plan was Dayton, where another major I-75 reconstruction program is under way.

Northwest Ohio actually did rather well, he said, in that planning funds were maintained for several I-75 projects and were even added for a future modernization of the I-475/U.S. 23 junction in Sylvania Township.

"They didn't cut anything. They just put all construction in a holding pattern -- everything's on hold except for a few major projects," said Mr. Henry, who said Congress is primarily to blame for the transportation funding crisis by its having left the federal gasoline tax at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993.

State Rep. Matt Szollosi (D., Oregon), the No. 2 Democrat in the House, also said he doesn't see a hidden turnpike-privatization campaign in the report but warned that the governor will have a fight on his hands if that's what the game plan turns out to be.

"I remain steadfastly and adamantly against a sale or lease of the turnpike," Mr. Szollosi said. "That's an asset that belongs to the state of Ohio. Examples in other states have proven that to be a model of false hope. Certainly, the northern part of the state will fight that initiative with fervor."

Ohio recently hired a consultant, KPMG LLP, to study the turnpike and to recommend how the state could turn what Mr. Kasich has characterized as "an underutilized asset" across northern Ohio into a cash cow for transportation projects across the state.

"With a $1.6 billion deficit, that turnpike -- if it can work, and I'm not telling you it's going to work -- it can help us go a long way to begin to actually work on and complete some of these projects," Mr. Kasich said.

It's something, he said, that the state "absolutely" has to look at.

The turnpike and an increase in public-private partnerships have been cited as potential ways for the state to generate more transportation revenue in a political climate in which a federal gas-tax hike is unlikely.

When asked whether Ohio should consider raising its gas tax, set at 28 cents a gallon since 2005, Mr. Kasich said, "No, we're not raising taxes in Ohio. We want to be competitive."

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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