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Published: Monday, 12/17/2012 - Updated: 3 years ago


North Ohioans rankled by plan for turnpike tolls

Proposal to spread funds out catches officials off guard

Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks in Toledo on Thursday about Ohio Turnpike plans. Standing, center, is ODOT Director Jerry Wray. Mayor Mike Bell is seated at right. Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks in Toledo on Thursday about Ohio Turnpike plans. Standing, center, is ODOT Director Jerry Wray. Mayor Mike Bell is seated at right.

Two decades ago, the Ohio General Assembly voted to allow toll collection to continue on the Ohio Turnpike even though its original construction bonds had been retired.

That decision still rankles some in northern Ohio who considered it a broken promise, and the continued charge to use I-80/90 unfair in comparison with the freeways that serve other parts of the state.

Now, Gov. John Kasich has proposed that the Ohio Turnpike issue $1.5 billion in new bonds to finance not only the proposed acceleration of a major overhaul campaign along the 241-mile toll road, but also to rebuild or expand other major highways in Ohio.

While the governor spoke glowingly of how the plan could get the $173 million final phase of I-75/I-475 junction reconstruction off Ohio’s financial back burner when he visited Toledo on Thursday, stops he made in Columbus and Cincinnati on Friday touted how turnpike financing could kick-start much bigger projects to renovate I-71/I-70 in the state capital and replace the I-71/I-75 Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Kentucky.

While offering that “more than 90 percent” of such bonds’ proceeds would be used for construction in the northern part of the state — defined tentatively as north of U.S. 30 by Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jerry Wray — a Kasich administration fact sheet said the Jobs and Transportation Plan “frees up ODOT to spend the state’s gas tax and federal funds on highways downstate — which allows all projects to move forward faster.”

That statement — essentially an admission that not only will some turnpike toll revenue finance southern Ohio projects, but that gas taxes collected in the north will be funneled south — caught state Rep. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), among others, off guard.

“Why would anybody think that’s fair?” Mr. Gardner asked Saturday. “I didn’t know that anyone contemplated that as a consequence of turnpike reform.”

And while state Rep. Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont), chairman of the Ohio House of Representatives’ Transportation, Public Safety, and Homeland Security Committee, said that of options explored in a consultant’s study of the turnpike’s future operation, “the one the governor picked is probably the best of the three,” the idea of using turnpike debt to subsidize roads or bridges in southern Ohio is troubling.

“You think I want an extra tax on me to pay for projects outside of my area?” Mr. Damschroder said. The spending side of the governor’s plan appears tough to stomach, he said, “unless they’re going to start taxing people in southern Ohio to drive on 71 or to cross the [Ohio] River, and send half of that up here.” 

Gov. John Kasich has proposed that toll increases be indexed to inflation and that no increases be applied to electronically paid tolls for trips of under 30 miles. Gov. John Kasich has proposed that toll increases be indexed to inflation and that no increases be applied to electronically paid tolls for trips of under 30 miles.

Southern projects

A Blade review of the state’s list of proposed major highway projects that have been placed on indefinite hold for want of construction funding, meanwhile, shows that more than half of the $6.9 billion wish list is south of U.S. 30, which runs essentially east-west about halfway between the Turnpike and I-70.

The Brent Spence Bridge and rebuilding the junction of I-70, I-71, and State Rt. 315 on Columbus’ southwest side represent the largest chunks of that, according to the “Tier 2” and “Tier 3” lists adopted in June by the Transportation Review Advisory Council, a state committee created in 1996 by Gov. George Voinovich to prioritize major projects on the basis of their transportation and economic-development benefits.

The plan identified $1.01 billion in unfunded need associated with the Brent Spence bridge and its I-71 and I-75 approaches in Ohio, while the southwest Columbus interchange was listed as needing $836 million.

The TRAC list identified unfunded phases of the Cleveland Innerbelt Project, which includes rebuilding parts of I-90, I-77, and I-71 near downtown Cleveland, as even more expensive: $1.51 billion.

The biggest project listed for northwest Ohio, meanwhile, is one regional ODOT officials said last month they expect to significantly downsize. Starting in 2014, the transportation department plans to spend $12 million to build new ramps within the U.S. 23/I-475 junction in Sylvania Township that are expected to address most of the safety and congestion goals for which a much more elaborate, $181 million project had been proposed to TRAC.

Overall, TRAC’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 lists include $3.75 billion in unfunded need from ODOT districts south of U.S. 30, and $3.16 billion from districts along or north of that highway, with $740 million of the latter in northwest Ohio’s Districts 1 and 2 but including the large I-475/U.S. 23 project.

An updated major-projects list is under development by the council, which is to meet Tuesday.

Not included on any TRAC list is reconstruction of original pavement on the Ohio Turnpike, which began two years ago with a $10.8 million rebuilding of five miles of the westbound lanes in Sandusky County.

The Ohio Turnpike Commission spent another $33.6 million this year to rebuild two more sections, but at that pace it would not finish replacing original pavement — which has been paved over several times since the toll road’s 1955 completion — until the mid-2050s.

Mr. Kasich said Thursday that expanded Turnpike borrowing would permit turnpike reconstruction to be completed in 25 years. The consultant study, conducted by Texas-based KPMG Corporate Finance for $3.4 million, estimated the turnpike’s capital needs at $3 billion. 

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, left, speaks with Toledo Mayor Mike Bell after announcing plans for the Ohio Turnpike, and future funding of Ohio highway projects, during a news conference at Modern Builders Supply in Toledo on Thursday. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, left, speaks with Toledo Mayor Mike Bell after announcing plans for the Ohio Turnpike, and future funding of Ohio highway projects, during a news conference at Modern Builders Supply in Toledo on Thursday.

Benefits touted

The governor promoted the turnpike plan on the grounds that it would finance projects throughout Ohio that the state cannot currently afford, while preserving current turnpike workers’ jobs, indexing toll increases to the inflation rate, and freezing tolls for 10 years for passenger-vehicle trips of under 30 miles if fares are paid electronically.

Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party and representative-elect to House District 89 straddling the turnpike in Ottawa and Erie counties, said Friday he understands why municipal and county leaders along the toll road voiced support for the governor’s plan after its announcement Thursday.

“They’re grabbing at dollars” to get unfunded projects built in their areas, Mr. Redfern said.

But the Kasich plan is “doing it with sleight of hand,” he said, because the turnpike financing would be “one-time dollars” — something Mr. Kasich, as a Republican candidate, condemned former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, for using — and dodges the long-term financial problems plaguing Ohio’s transportation budget.

Steve Faulkner, a spokesman at ODOT headquarters in Columbus, likened criticism of Mr. Kasich’s proposal from northern Ohio to someone who is offered a new car, but is unhappy for not also being offered a new house.

“This is $3 billion that wasn’t there before,” Mr. Faulkner said, citing the total amount Mr. Kasich said Ohio could have available for highway projects if federal and local funds expected to match the turnpike borrowing is included. “That allows us to really hammer away at some of these projects. ... Right now, today, there’s no money for these projects now.”

Mr. Faulkner also said that tolls are part of the plan to rebuild the Brent Spence Bridge, which, with an overall price tag of $2.4 billion, “doesn’t stand a chance of getting built likely in our lifetime” otherwise.

State officials also are looking at tolls to finance at least part of four-lane U.S. 30 construction east of Canton and new bypasses of U.S. 23 and State Rt. 32 in southern Ohio. Mr. Faulkner said federal law precludes tolling existing roads, so that isn’t an option for other projects on TRAC’s unfunded list.

But asked why northern Ohioans who use the turnpike should theoretically be asked to pay off the loans for “the car” and “the house” while only receiving “the car,” Mr. Faulkner said flatly: “The Ohio Turnpike is a state-owned asset. It’s not a Toledo asset. It’s an Ohio asset.”

Mr. Redfern bluntly rebuked that statement.

“It’s not an Ohio asset; it’s an asset of the turnpike commission,” he said. The turnpike’s underlying premise all along has been “infrastructure paid for by those who use it.”

Fuel-tax debate

The Kasich administration, he argued, should instead be working to build a legislative coalition in support of raising motor fuel taxes similar to the one Gov. Bob Taft, also a Republican, brokered a decade ago, leading to three two-cents-per-gallon increases over three years.

Mr. Faulkner said a fuel-tax increase hasn’t even been considered, because it’s “not sustainable” in an era of rising fuel efficiency and reduced driving.

The KPMG analysis, the ODOT spokesman said, “was never intended to look at the impact of raising taxes. That option was off the table. Governor Kasich insisted on it.”

But Mr. Damschroder said fuel taxes are more akin to a user fee — like tolls — than they are a tax.

The issue of distributing Ohio highway money is problematic because “the rest of the state is going to be a benefactor,” Mr. Damschroder said.

“I’m not sure I have a solution yet,” he said. “The vast majority of the legislators don’t live on the turnpike.”

Mr. Gardner, meanwhile, said he plans to start asking questions around Columbus this week, rather than waiting for a transportation budget bill containing enabling language for the Jobs and Transportation Plan to be introduced sometime early next year.

“This should not negatively impact gas-tax distribution,” Mr. Gardner said. “That’s a nonstarter.”

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.

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