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Published: Friday, 3/22/2013

OHIO TURNPIKE

House OKs $1.5B turnpike borrowing

Bill supports 70 mph for rural highways

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS — In a vote that crossed both partisan and geographic lines, the Ohio House on Thursday 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 also raises the speed limit on rural highways — the boundaries of which will ultimately be determined by the Ohio Department of Transportation — to 70 mph starting July 1. An agency spokesman said it has not determined yet when it will release information on the areas where the speed-limit increases will take effect.

House Bill 51 passed 62-27 on its way to the Republican governor’s desk.

In siding with Mr. Kasich, Rep. Matt Szollosi (D., Oregon) cited a number of Toledo-area projects expected to be jump-started by the infusion of dollars, among them completion of a rebuild of the interchange of I-75 and I-475. He also cited proposed upgrades to the I-475 junction with U.S. 23 in Sylvania Township as well as the nearby Central Avenue interchange.

“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 $3 billion in construction funds.

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 its own construction projects.

“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 Patrick Carney (D., Columbus) said.

Rep. Ross McGregor (R., Springfield), the bill’s sponsor, said an increase in the state gas tax must be on the table for discussion by a study commission created under the bill, as well as a counterproposal pushed by some of his colleagues to kill the tax.

Ohio’s gas tax last was raised in 2005 to 28 cents per gallon.

“I think what we’re going to vote on today, this conference report, is a great move in the right direction, but it is not the silver bullet that’s going to cure all of our needs in no way shape or form,” he said.

Mr. Kasich could yet wield his line-item veto pen to strike any language he doesn’t like, but the plan holds much of what he was looking for. Spokesman Rob Nichols declined to discuss whether any provision would be vetoed.

The transportation budget must be signed before the end of the month in order to take effect July 1.

“This turnpike plan is a big change for our state, and I applaud the General Assembly for being open to and ultimately passing an innovative plan that will allow us to complete infrastructure projects faster, create 65,000 new construction jobs, and help attract new job creators to Ohio,” Mr. Kasich said.

In the end, the speed-limit change, restoring the maximum to pre-1974 levels, proved to be among the least controversial provisions of the bill.

The $7.6 billion transportation and public-safety budget 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 addition to Mr. Szollosi, northwest Ohio lawmakers supporting the bill included Reps. Michael Ashford (D., Toledo), Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), Robert Sprague (R., Findlay), Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon), Jeffrey McClain (R., Upper Sandusky), and Tony Burkley (R., Payne).

Regional “no” votes included Reps. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), Tim Brown (R., Bowling Green), Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island), and Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont).

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



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