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Published: Wednesday, 2/27/2013

Ohio House panel weighs qualification criteria for projects to be funded by Turnpike tolls

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS — A House committee crafting Gov. John Kasich’s turnpike-for-cash deal may try to define how projects that may be far from the 241-mile corridor would qualify for funds generated by the toll road.

A coalition of Lucas and 12 other northern counties argued Tuesday that northern Ohioans who pay those tolls should not have to rely on oral promises made by Gov. John Kasich or the Ohio Turnpike Commission that 90 percent of the money will remain in that region.

“As proposed, [House Bill 51] doesn’t just ignore the matter of the distribution of funds. It doesn’t even mention northern Ohio,” Ted Kalo, president of the Lorain County Commissioners, told the House Finance and Appropriations Committee.

“If this legislation is passed without directing the distribution of proceeds, then there will be no way to ensure that promises are kept after the money changes hands,” he said.

The bill also should set in stone the governor’s promise that tolls won’t rise dramatically to service $1.5 billion in new turnpike debt, Mr. Kalo said. The state has proposed borrowing $1.5 billion guaranteed by future tolls in addition to turnpike debt. This money would draw down matching federal dollars for a total pot of $3 billion for new highway and bridge construction statewide.

The committee may consider amendments to the bill today, with a vote possibly later in the week. The bill could reach the House floor next week.

The 90 percent guarantee would apply only to the $1.5 billion directly generated by turnpike borrowing. It would not apply to the federal match of $1.5 billion, according to turnpike commission Executive Director Richard Hodges, a former state representative from Delta.

As a toll road, the Ohio Turnpike is not eligible for a share of the state’s federal matching funds, even though some of those funds are tied to its mileage.

“We are also concerned about the possibility of a shell game happening with transportation funding,” Mr. Kalo said. “We’ve already seen it with the state lottery and K-12 education funding. Whenever the lottery increases substantially, it’s not treated as a gain. It’s simply used as an opportunity to contribute less from the general fund, so that overall K-12 funding doesn’t increase any faster than it was growing already.”

The turnpike would keep $70 million of the $1.5 billion in toll-backed bonds to accelerate its ongoing replacement of its aging roadway base.

The Kasich administration has been reluctant to write its funding promises into law. It has also resisted incorporating the promise that tolls for local commuters using E-ZPass and driving less than 30 miles would be frozen at current levels for 10 years, and that future increases for all other vehicles would be capped at the rate of inflation. The Kasich administration is concerned that legal restrictions affecting turnpike revenue flexibility could affect borrowing rates.

Under the proposal, the Transportation Review Advisory Council, which prioritizes highway and bridge projects based on available funding, would recommend projects to be funded by turnpike bonds. Such projects could be vetoed by the turnpike commission if it determines they lack a “nexus” with the toll road.

Would that mean that a project must physically connect with the 241-mile toll road?

“What does that mean?” asked state Rep. Ron Amstutz (R., Wooster), committee chairman. “Something down in Ironton, if you follow the road, is linked. I don’t know.”

As for local and Democratic demands that the 90 percent promise be included in the law, Mr. Amstutz said, “We’re describing two sides of the same thing.”

“You have to have a nexus with these projects,” he said. “They’ll all benefit the turnpike in some fashion, but not as directly as on the turnpike itself. In that sense, we’re helping the region.… It’s the TRAC process that’s going to drive what happens. It’s just the TRAC will have more money, a lot more money if we go forward with this project.”

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



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