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Published: Friday, 3/1/2013

Ohio House votes to borrow $1.5B for turnpike bridge projects

BY JIM PROVANCE & KATE GIAMMARISE
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

COLUMBUS — The Ohio House tonight ratified Gov. John Kasich’s plan to quadruple Ohio Turnpike debt to deal with a backlog of highway and bridge projects across the state.

Mostly Republican supporters of the plan praised the idea of an innovative way to deal with an old problem of lacking the funds to deal with deteriorating infrastructure. The mostly Democratic opposition called the plan double-taxation on northern Ohioans who will now pay both the gas tax and turnpike tolls to foot the bill.

“There’s a lot of pride in where we live, but we’re still one state,” said Rep. Matt Huffman (R., Lima) in favor of the bill.

House Bill 51 passed 58-36 and now goes to the Senate. It is expected to eventually reach Mr. Kasich’s desk.

A handful of Republicans along the 241-mile toll road corridor joined Democrats in opposition. A pair of Cleveland area Democrats broke with their party to support the measure.

Under the plan, the Ohio Turnpike would borrow $1.5 billion against future tolls on top of the modest $530 million in debt it’s currently carrying. This is expected to generate a matching amount in federal and local funds for a total construction pot of $3 billion.

The turnpike itself would get a $70 million slice of the $1.5 billion raised to accelerate its ongoing replacement of its entire toll road’s 60-year-old base.

Mr. Kasich has promised that 90 percent of that first $1.5 billion would be spent on projects in northern Ohio, which has been generally described as anything north of Route 30. He has also promised that tolls would be frozen for the next 10 years at current rates for EZ-Pass-using commuters traveling less than 30 miles and that toll increases for all other vehicles would be capped at the annual rate of inflation.

But none of these promises are written into the bill. The Kasich administration fears that legal restrictions on the turnpike’s ability to raise revenue would affect bond rates.

Earlier on Thursday, the Lucas County commissioners, all Democrats, held a downtown Toledo press conference to voice their opposition to the plan.

Legislators should reject "any legislation that doesn't keep the governor's promise" of using 90 percent of the funds for projects in Northern Ohio, said Carol Contrada, president of the county commissioners.

"What is the rush? Why is this being done in such a hurry?" asked Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak,

The state should not borrow funds against the turnpike without a written guarantee the funds will be returned to Northern Ohio, she said.

"Write it down. Be accountable," Commissioner Pete Gerken said.

All three commissioners unanimously approved a resolution at their weekly meeting Tuesday urging the governor and the legislature to reexamine the plan.



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