COLUMBUS — In a vote that crossed both partisan and geographic lines, the Ohio House today gave Gov. John Kasich final approval to borrow $1.5 billion against the Ohio Turnpike to spur highway and bridge construction across the state.
The bill, which also increases the speed limit on rural highways to 70 mph beginning July 1, passed by a vote of 62-27.
Rep. Matt Szollosi (D., Oregon) broke with many of his Democratic colleagues to support the bill, calling it a “no-brainer” to take advantage of historically cheap borrowing rates and when federal and state gas tax collections have stagnated.
“The cost of capital is next to nothing,” he said. “I can make the argument that it’s fiscally irresponsible not to bond at this point in history.”
The borrowing, when coupled with federal and local matching dollars, is expected to generate a total of $3 billion in construction funds.
Mr. Szollosi cited a number of Toledo area projects expected to be jump-started by the infusion of dollars — a rebuild of the interchange of I-75 and I-475 and modifications of the interchanges of I-475 with U.S. 23 and U.S. 20.
“This proposal will enhance the economic vitality of the Lake Erie west region and that of our state…,” he said.
Opponents, however, argued that the turnpike plan is just a Band-aid on the state’s transportation funding woes, quadrupling the debt of a toll road that has been largely paying cash in recent years for much of its own work.
“If pulling out the credit card and putting $1.5 billion on it and putting a transportation asset that’s in sound shape under water is not kicking the can down the road, I don’t know what is,” Rep. John Carney (D., Columbus) said.
In addition to numerous other provisions of the two-year, $7.6 billion transportation and public safety budget, the bill raises the speed limit on rural interstates to 70 mph. It sets a limit at 65 mph on urban outer beltways and other congested stretches, and gives the state the option of setting the limit at 60 mph on certain two-lane state highways outside urban areas.
In the end, the speed limit proved to be among the least controversial provisions of the bill.
House Bill 51 would also:
— Require 90 percent of that borrowing to be spent within 75 miles of the turnpike corridor.
— Freeze tolls for 10 years for local commuters using E-ZPass and traveling less than 30 miles between exits. An exception to that rule includes the need to raise tolls to meet bond obligations.
— Not write into law Mr. Kasich’s promise that toll increases for all other drivers would be capped at the rate of inflation.
— Revamp and expand the turnpike commission, shortens member terms, and give the governor greater appointment authority.
— Keeps the current maximum weight limit for trucks on public roads at 80,000 pounds, rejecting a House attempt to increase it to 90,000.
— Allows triple-trailer trucks that don’t need a permit to drive the turnpike to also travel within two miles of the toll road, up from one mile currently.