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Published: Wednesday, 3/20/2013

Budget bill raises speed limit to 70 mph

Turnpike borrowing plan altered in compromise

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS — It’s full speed ahead toward a new 70 mph speed limit, but attempts to lock down Gov. John Kasich’s promises to northern Ohio when it comes to turnpike borrowing were watered Tuesday as lawmakers compromised on a transportation budget.

A joint conference committee voted 5-1 to set the stage for Senate approval today and House approval on Thursday. Both chambers want to wrap up the two-year transportation bill and deliver it to the governor’s desk before they recess for a two-week spring break.

“The true winners of this are the people of the state of Ohio,” said Sen. Tom Patton (R., Strongsville), a committee member. “We are guaranteeing road safety. We are improving highways. We are expanding highways. We are moving up our road construction program in some cases by maybe a decade.”

The rewritten bill would raise the maximum speed limit on rural Interstates from 65 mph to 70 mph. The limit would be 65 mph on urban Interstate outer beltways and 55 mph inside those beltways and on congested highways. The Department of Transportation could set the limit at 60 mph on certain two-lane roads.

With the exception of Pennsylvania, all of Ohio’s neighbors — as well as the Ohio Turnpike — are already at 70 mph.

Mr. Kasich wants to borrow $1.5 billion against future turnpike tolls to draw down a matching amount in federal and local dollars. That would mean a total of $3 billion for highway and bridge construction across the state that the administration contends would create 65,000 jobs.

The sole negative vote, Rep. Alicia Reece (D., Cincinnati), complained that assurances made to northern Ohio would not prevent a funding shell game, a substitution of toll-backed revenue for gas tax revenue that would have been spent in the region anyhow.

“We’ve asked for tolls to be frozen,” she said. “We’ve asked for the 90 percent guarantee for northern Ohio specified in writing. Unfortunately, today we have fallen short.”

Mr. Kasich had promised that 90 percent of the borrowed funds would be spent in northern Ohio. The bill now headed for a final vote in both chambers calls for 90 percent to be spent on projects that are both located within 75 miles of the 241-mile turnpike corridor and can be shown to have some impact on the turnpike.

The governor also promised that tolls will be frozen for a decade at current levels for commuters using E-ZPass and traveling less than 30 miles between exits. The final bill limits the freeze only to passenger vehicles and cracks the door to allow a revamped turnpike commission to break that promise under certain circumstances, including if it would endanger borrowing rates.

“We don’t want to end up having this cost Ohioans more money by having our bond rates go up …,” said Sen. Gayle Manning (R., North Ridgeville), another committee member who initially pushed for a simple freeze.

“Naturally, we have to do compromise in order to get things passed,” she said.

The compromise killed another Senate provision designed to partially address Mr. Kasich’s promise that toll increases for all other Ohio drivers would be capped at the annual rate of inflation. An attempt to increase truck weights on Ohio roads from 80,000 to 90,000 pounds also did not survive.

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



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