COLUMBUS — Gov. John Kasich’s plan to wring cash out of the Ohio Turnpike pulled into the fast lane on Wednesday, despite complaints that the bill sent to the full House sidesteps promises made to northern Ohio.
The House is expected to vote today on the plan to nearly quadruple the 241-mile toll road’s debt to generate $1.5 billion in new highway and bridge construction cash. Counting additional federal and local matching funds, the pot would pump $3 billion into construction across the state.
State Rep. Robert Sprague (R., Findlay) called the plan “very solid.”
“If we invest billions of dollars into our infrastructure, it’s going to make us more competitive as a state in the long run, and in the short run it’s going to create thousands and thousands of construction jobs, which helps middle-class families, and it helps all Ohioans …,” he said. “Although most of the money is going to go to northern Ohio, the entire state’s going to benefit because of the upgrade in the entire system.”
But a pair of Cleveland-area Republicans joined all Democrats on the House Finance and Appropriations Committee to oppose the bill. The GOP majority rejected amendments that would have written promises made by the GOP governor, the Department of Transportation, and the Ohio Turnpike Commission into the bill.
They’ve promised that at least 90 percent of the funds generated from the $1.5 billion bond sale will be spent in northern Ohio, informally described as anything north of U.S. 30, which runs through or near Canton, Massillon, Upper Sandusky, and Van Wert.
They’ve promised that tolls for local commuters traveling less than 30 miles and using EZ-Pass would be frozen at current levels for 10 years. Tolls for all other drivers, including the roughly half from out of state, would see toll increases of no more than the annual rate of inflation.
But the Kasich administration worries that legally tying the hands of the turnpike when it comes to raising revenue will hurt bond rates. Amendments to put what Democrats dubbed “the Kasich amendments” in writing failed.
Rep. Nickie Antonio (D., Lakewood) tried to insert language capping the turnpike’s borrowing authority at $1.5 billion.
“[Pennsylvania has] used a bonding scheme, and they have over-bonded …,” she said. “What Pennsylvania has done is increase their tolls to try to recoup some of that money, because they’re desperate because not only do they need to maintain their roads, they have to pay back the bonds. And they don’t have the money to do it.
“We’ve heard those truck drivers avoid driving on the turnpike in Pennsylvania because it’s too expensive,” Ms. Antonio said. “To our neighbors in Indiana we have a privatized pike that no one wants to drive on because it’s in such disrepair, Ohio needs to have some common sense in how we deal with this precious resource we have in the turnpike.”
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Ron Amstutz (R., Wooster), however, called the plan conservative, noting that the plan authorizes the spending of just $500 million of that $1.5 million over the next two years.
Among committee members from northwest Ohio, Representatives Sprague, Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), and Jeff McClain (R., Upper Sandusky) supported the bill. Rep. Michael Ashford (D., Toledo) opposed it.
“Right now, they can’t guarantee the monies will go back to the turnpike,” Mr. Ashford said. “There’s no transparency with it, and northern Ohio is going to be left out again.”
Debate on the bill was testy at times. Rep. Mike Foley (D., Cleveland) accused Mr. Kasich of wanting a “political football for an election campaign in 2014.” Mr. Amstutz said Democrats were trying to create “a bit of a political clash here that is not to be unexpected.”
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 614-221-0496.