COLUMBUS — Some lawmakers on Wednesday questioned why Gov. John Kasich’s administration is reluctant to write into state law its public promise that 90 percent of money generated by borrowing against the Ohio Turnpike would be spent in “northern Ohio.”
Lines are clearly being drawn in the House Finance and Appropriations Committee over Mr. Kasich’s proposal to generate $3 billion in new highway and bridge construction across the state. The governor plans to borrow $1.5 billion against future toll revenue and then draw matching federal funds.
The committee stripped the turnpike language from the traditional two-year transportation budget and inserted it into another bill to be considered separately.
“The opinion of the southern part of the state will be heard,” stressed Rep. Ross McGregor (R., Springfield).
State Rep. Matt Lundy (D., Elyria), a former Toledo TV news anchorman, noted that the administration has repeatedly used the 90 percent figure to sell the proposal.
“I’m almost hearing that we’re backing away from this,” he said.
Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jerry Wray said he doesn’t want to set in legal stone an “arbitrary number or percentage” or to draw a line as to where “northern Ohio” begins.
“Just by the fact that there are so many projects — that’s where the population is, that’s where the congestion is — there’s no doubt the majority of the money will end up in northern Ohio…,” he said. “To try to contrive some sort of a quota or a line or a percentage to say, ‘Let’s force a certain amount here or there’ would remove the flexibility that we need to try to make sure that we have an excellent transportation system statewide.”
The administration has generally described northern Ohio as anything north of Route 30.
Richard Hodges, turnpike executive director and a former state representative from Delta, noted the commission will have the final say on which projects are funded using turnpike-related funds. He said there would have to be a nexus with the turnpike even if the projects are well outside the toll-road corridor.
“That doesn’t mean 100 percent for northern Ohio, but it means a heck of a lot,” he said.
The borrowing will include $70 million for the turnpike itself to speed up its replacement of the toll road’s base. The proposal would freeze tolls at current levels for 10 years for commuters with EZ-Pass who travel less than 30 miles. It would limit future toll increases for all other traffic to the rate of inflation.
Mr. Hodges noted that 56 percent of the toll revenue comes from out-of-state drivers.
“It’s fine to write [90 percent] in the bill, but it can be unwritten out just as quickly,” said Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), a committee member. “We all know you can’t bind future General Assemblies, so that is a concern to me. But as you look at other issues around the state, certainly we have the oil and shale issue happening down in the southeast, so I understand that they don’t want [taxes on] their asset to be redistributed around the state any more than we want our asset redistributed around the state.”
Rep. Denise Diehaus (D., Cincinnati) took aim at ODOT’s plan to eliminate 34 travel counselor positions at 11 highway rest stops. She noted that Mr. Kasich last year lauded one of those counselors at a Bowling Green rest stop on I-75 for quick thinking that may have saved the lives of two teenaged girls.
The counselor responded when approached by one of the girls who said she’d been kidnapped and later forced out of a Kentucky trucker’s rig. He alerted the highway patrol that a second girl was still in the truck. The patrol stopped the truck, freed the second girl, and arrested the trucker.
“Given the heightened awareness of what we all need to do to attack this human-trafficking issue, I’m wondering if maybe putting that back in the budget would be money well-spent,” Ms. Driehaus said.
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