Feds revoke $1.5M grant for Ohio Turnpike study

Privatization proposal called into question

A  line of trucks exit the Ohio Turnpike at I-280.
A line of trucks exit the Ohio Turnpike at I-280.

The U.S. Department of Transportation Friday revoked a $1.5 million grant it had planned to give the state to study the idea of privatizing the Ohio Turnpike after the state's Democratic members of Congress complained.

The five Democratic congressmen and Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown objected that the appropriation would have been "an improper use of federal planning and research dollars."

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), one of those opposing the expenditure, welcomed the announcement.

"The turnpike is a capital asset that should be used for economic development in northern Ohio, not a financial derivative to be shopped around to the highest bidder," Miss Kaptur said. "The turnpike belongs to the Ohio people -- they paid for it. I applaud Secretary [Ray] LaHood for making the correct decision and standing up for the people of northern Ohio."

The Kasich administration, which wants to explore leasing the 241-mile toll road, blamed politics between the Democratic federal administration and the Republican state administration.

Jerry Wray, the Ohio director of transportation, said in a statement issued by his office that "[Federal Highway Administrator] Victor Mendez told me he was feeling political pressure to reverse his agency's decision on this."

He said Mr. Mendez wants the Ohio Department of Transportation to revise its application for the $1.5 million.

"But I'm not optimistic that politics won't still interfere," Mr. Wray said. "It's disappointing and a little irregular that the [Federal Highway Administration] would let politics blur their process, but if it continues we'll just find a way to get this done ourselves."

A spokesman for Mr. Mendez denied the statement attributed to him.

"Administrator Mendez said nothing about political pressure in his conversation with Director Wray. He told Wray the scope of work as currently designed was not an eligible use of federal funds -- period," said Cathy St. Denis, associate administrator. "What we initially approved was vastly different than the scope of work we saw two days ago."

The state's initial request was three paragraphs saying it wanted to see how leasing the state's assets has worked in other states. It didn't mention the Ohio Turnpike.

Ms. St. Denis said that the nine-page scope of work that followed appeared to be a professional services contract to solicit bidders for leasing the turnpike.

However, one of the goals of the bidders in the scope of work would be to evaluate options, including public ownership and operation, public ownership with partial private operation, and private operation through a long-term lease.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D., Niles), who organized the letter to Transportation Secretary LaHood, said any efforts to sell the turnpike are "misguided."

"It's disappointing that during this rush to privatize the turnpike, the state attempted to misuse these federal funds for a plan that could potentially cost drivers through significantly increased tolls, threaten the job security of over 1,000 Ohioans, and drive up costs for local governments through increased maintenance costs for local roads. Federal money should be used to create jobs, not eliminate them," Mr. Ryan said.

The letter was also signed by Reps. Dennis Kucinich and Marcia Fudge of Cleveland, Rep. Betty Sutton of Barberton, and Senator Brown. A spokesman for Mr. Ryan said the Republican delegation from Ohio was also asked to sign on to the letter, but did not.

The Ohio Department of Transportation is working toward selecting a consultant to study whether a long-term lease of the toll road across northern Ohio to a private entity would be a good deal for the state.

A Spanish-Australian partnership five years ago entered into a 75-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road for a payment of $3.8 billion to the state. Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich has stressed that the state will not pursue a similar deal here if the market doesn't support it.

Mr. Kasich has talked about a long-term lease that could generate about $3 billion. Roughly $600 million of the purchase price would have to be earmarked to pay off the Ohio Turnpike's outstanding debt. The rest of the money could be used to fund other transportation projects in the state.

Contact Tom Troy at tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.