Kasich set to suggest changes for turnpike


COLUMBUS — Headed into a $3.4 million study on the Ohio Turnpike’s future, state officials insisted doing nothing was an option.

But Gov. John Kasich made it clear Monday the status quo is not what his administration will announce Thursday and Friday during a string of events across the state centered on unlocking “greater wealth” from the 241-mile toll road across northern Ohio.

“I understand how sensitive people are in the north about the turnpike,” the Republican governor told county commissioners and engineers gathered in Columbus. “I understand it’s an emotional issue. We’ve listened to people, and we’re going to respond in a way to get value out of that asset.”

Later, he referred to the proposal as a “jobs program.”

For more than a year, Mr. Kasich has talked about leveraging the turnpike’s value to help pay for projects elsewhere in the state, particularly after the state revealed it had promised $1.6 billion more in highway projects than it had money to fund.

Texas-based KPMG Corporate Finance LLC conducted the study for the state. If maintaining the status quo is taken off the table, that most likely leaves a lease of 50 years or more of the highway to a private entity for an up-front lump sum or a takeover of the toll road by the Department of Transportation.

The latter option would let the state borrow against it for road and bridge projects far from the turnpike corridor with the road’s tolls guaranteeing the loans. Mr. Kasich would not provide details.

“The bulk of the money will be spent in the north, and we will be able to complete projects much sooner than we could if we didn’t move forward with this,” he said.

He referred to northern Ohio’s “emotional attachment to a highway” and insisted his plan has taken the region’s concerns into account. “We think we’ve arrived at the right place,” he said.

In 2005, Indiana leased its 157-mile turnpike for 75 years to a private Spanish-Australian firm for a $3.8 billion lump sum. While Ohio’s road is longer, few believe the market would generate as big a price tag.

Whatever is proposed would need legislative approval to enact. Many northern Ohio Republican and Democratic lawmakers have challenged the idea of using tolls primarily paid by residents of that area to fund projects well to the south.

“It’s pretty clear that unless they make it a free highway for us, I don’t want to pay tolls for the rest of my lifetime as an extra tax for transportation projects across Ohio,” said Rep. Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont). “Having said that, I have not read what’s in the governor’s proposal, and I’m not going to criticize it until I see what it says.”

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