Kasich to visit Toledo today to spell out results of 13-month Ohio Turnpike study

Tolls from the Ohio Turnpike, which spans the northern part of the state, have been proposed as a source of  funds for road repair in other parts of Ohio.
Tolls from the Ohio Turnpike, which spans the northern part of the state, have been proposed as a source of funds for road repair in other parts of Ohio.

Gov. John Kasich will end a 13-month study of how to tap the wealth of the Ohio Turnpike to pay for highway and bridge construction needs in Ohio with an announcement set for this morning in Toledo.

The governor’s office refuses to divulge details of the announcement, but a veteran area lawmaker and a newly elected lawmaker contacted by The Blade said they thought the governor had ruled out leasing the turnpike.

State Rep. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) said he believes the administration will not proceed with a lease plan.

“It appears to me that the question of a private sale or lease is not something the governor intends to do. I get that from his public statements and how he’s been quoted in the media, but I’ve not had that conversation” with the administration, Mr. Gardner said.

He said the conclusion he’s drawn from his conversations with local government officials and citizens is that they are opposed to selling or leasing the turnpike to a private, out-of-state, or foreign entity but aren’t opposed to doing something different.

“They want to maintain a semblance of state control, state management, so I’m fairly confident that that will be the result of the announcement,” Mr. Gardner said. He said he has not been consulted by the Kasich administration nor has he talked to anyone in the Ohio Department of Transportation about the turnpike.

“Kasich will announce new strategies for filling Ohio’s $1.6 billion highway funding deficit,” the governor’s office said in announcing the 10:15 a.m. news conference at Modern Building Supply, 3500 Phillips Ave.

It will be the first of three stops in the day to announce the findings of a $3.4 million study performed by Texas firm KPMG Corporate Finance LLC.

Administration officials declined to discuss the report on Wednesday, with Rick Hodges, the turnpike’s executive director, saying he will be a part of a group led by the governor that will appear later in the day in Cleveland and Youngstown.

“It’s the last 10 minutes of a three-hour epic movie, and I’m as excited to see the end as anybody else,” Mr. Hodges said.

The Ohio Turnpike Commission, created in 1949 to build and operate the 241-mile toll road across northern Ohio, is semi-autonomous, with five voting commissioners appointed by the governor — one of whom is the sitting transportation department director. The commission also has four nonvoting members —-- one from each house of the Ohio General Assembly and the state's directors of development and of management and budget.

Last year, the turnpike ran a $57.8 million surplus in its budget of $251.4 million, which was funded mainly by toll revenue of $231 million. At year’s end, the commission had net assets of $834,315,000.

Along with leasing the turnpike to a private firm, the study considered merging the Ohio Turnpike Commission into the Ohio Department of Transportation, contracting only parts of its operations to private firms, or maintaining the commission’s status quo.

Speaker of the House Bill Batchelder (R., Medina), who stressed Tuesday he hadn’t been briefed on the final results, said he thinks people will be surprised at the number of proponents of the plan. The turnpike runs through Mr. Batchelder’s district, among others.

“I think there will be people in this part of the state who will be favorably disposed toward the governor’s proposal,” he said.

Placing the turnpike within the transportation department would give the Kasich administration, as well as future administrations, the option of borrowing against turnpike tolls for transportation-related projects throughout Ohio, although the governor has promised that most of such projects would occur in the northern part of the state.

Mr. Kasich’s choice of site for the news conference today points at two such projects: the second phase of rebuilding the I-475/I-75 interchange in Toledo, including widening I-75 from I-475 to Phillips, most recently estimated to cost $172.7 million, and a $46 million widening of I-75 from Phillips to I-280.

Those are among dozens of major highway projects that Ohio's Transportation Review Advisory Council has identified as worthy of construction but for which funds are unavailable for the foreseeable future with current state revenue and federal funding forecasts for Ohio. The Kasich administration has repeatedly ruled out raising state fuel taxes to help bridge the gap.

Democrat Chris Redfern of Catawba Island, the incoming representative for the 89th District that will include Ottawa and Erie counties, said he believes the governor plans to bring the turnpike under his administration and blasted that as a misuse of the turnpike’s revenues to satisfy political promises.

“He’s going to borrow debt and then fund projects. ODOT has overpromised historically to meet political commitments,” said Mr. Redfern, who is currently the state Democratic Party chairman.

“I appreciate the need for infrastructure. If there is such a need, why is he not out with legislators encouraging them to increase the gas tax? It’s politically difficult, so he goes about this Ponzi scheme, as if it’s free money. It’s got to be paid back by somebody, and who's going to pay it back? The people who live along the turnpike,” Mr. Redfern said.

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