COLUMBUS — Ohio will join most of its neighbors in the fast lane if a bill headed for a Senate vote this week becomes law.
The Senate Transportation Committee on Monday inserted language into a proposed two-year budget to raise the maximum legal limit for both cars and trucks from 65 mph to 70 mph on most nonurban “interstate freeways.”
The speed limit would be 65 mph on urban outer beltways and 55 mph on congested interstates selected by the Department of Transportation.
The language stresses that the bill would not lower existing speed limits. Vehicles already can travel 70 mph on the Ohio Turnpike.
“We talked to police about the safety issues,’’ the committee’s chairman, Sen. Gayle Manning (R., North Ridgeville), said.
“As long as we did the 55 [mph] where it’s very congested … it was just fine with them. They didn’t see it as being a problem with safety.”
All but one of Ohio’s neighbors have 70-mph limits for at least cars on certain rural interstates. Pennsylvania is at 65 mph while Michigan and Indiana have slower limits for trucks. Ohio increased truck speeds several years ago to bring them in line with cars on most roads.
Lt. Anne Ralston, spokesman for the Ohio Highway Patrol, said the bill addresses her agency’s concerns.
“If this does come to fruition with the 70 mph, there will be a two-year study to explore the impact of the higher speed limit,” she said. “It’s also only 70 mph on rural interstates. Urban areas will not go to 70.”
The committee is expected to vote on the bill today in anticipation of a full Senate vote Wednesday.
House Bill 51 then would have to return to the House for consideration of Senate changes.
In addition to the speed-limit change, the committee amended the transportation bill to:
● Guarantee that 90 percent of funds raised from borrowing against future Ohio Turnpike tolls will be spent on highway and bridge projects within 75 miles of the existing 241-mile toll road corridor.
● Freeze for 10 years turnpike tolls paid by commuters using E-ZPass and making trips of less than 30 miles.
● Require the state to demonstrate a proposed project has a “nexus” with the turnpike before getting funding from toll-backed bonds. The turnpike commission would consider a project’s physical proximity to the toll road; its impact on traffic flow, density, or capacity; its impact on tolls and other turnpike revenue; its impact on movement of goods and services; its effect on access to the turnpike system, and access to connected areas of population, commerce, and industry.
● Remove several controversial provisions that would have increased some truck weight and length limits.
A separate speed-limit bill was introduced earlier this year in the House, but that chamber did not insert similar language into the transportation budget before it was voted out nearly two weeks ago.
The bill, along with its speed-limit increase, must reach Mr. Kasich’s desk by the beginning of April.
The House had refused to write Mr. Kasich’s promises concerning expenditure of turnpike funds in northern Ohio into the bill, citing concerns that restrictions on the turnpike’s ability to raise revenue could affect interest rates the state would have to pay.
“Those of us in northern Ohio have said all along that we believe, if the program is going to be based on revenues generated by the turnpike, that the vast majority of the funds should be utilized for transportation needs in northern Ohio…,” said Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), a committee member.
Ric Oxender, lobbyist for the Ohio Conference of AAA Clubs, said he would have preferred the speed limit be considered separately so it could get more debate.
“Everybody knows that when the speed limit is 65 [mph], most people top 70 to 72 without much fear of being ticketed,” he said. “Opening it up to 70, people are going to be driving 80.”
He said that, if lawmakers had raised the speed limit while also increasing weight truck and length limits, it would have been “a recipe for slaughter.”
Ms. Manning said the committee worked closely with Mr. Kasich’s office as it developed the language related to his turnpike plan.
Mr. Kasich had generally described northern Ohio as anything north of U.S. 30 when it came to his promise that 90 percent of turnpike bond money would be spent in the region.
“Route 30 is like 72.3 [miles] or something like that…,” Ms. Manning said. “It was easier to say 75 [miles from the turnpike].”
Mr. Kasich’s office was noncommittal when reached for comment.
The governor wants to borrow $1.5 billion against future tolls with the expectation those dollars would be matched with federal and local dollars for a total pot of $3 billion in construction funds statewide.
While it wrote the governor’s promise that tolls would be frozen for local commuters into the bill, the committee did not include Mr. Kasich’s separate promise that annual toll increases for all other drivers, including those from outside the state, would be capped at the rate of inflation.
Rep. Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont), chairman of the House Transportation, Public Safety, and Homeland Security Committee, was a “no” vote on the turnpike bill when it passed the House.
He likes the speed-limit increase, but he expects to still be a “no” vote when the bill returns to the House if the turnpike language still means a “net cash flow out of our area.”
“We have a 70-mph uniform speed limit on the turnpike as we speak,” he said.
“That’s pretty much standard around the country. As long as it’s not a split speed limit on interstates, I can support that. It’s when you have split traffic going two different speeds that you have increased accidents.”
The changes adopted by the committee include a provision pushed by Mr. Gardner to create a turnpike mitigation program to help local governments deal with noise abatement, drainage, bridge repair, grade separation, and other issues along the turnpike corridor.
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