Ohio Gov. John Kasich delivers his State of the State address at Veterans Memorial Civic and Convention Center in Lima, Ohio, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
WARRENSVILLE HEIGHTS, Ohio — Rev up your engines. The speed limit on Ohio’s rural interstates is about to increase to 70 mph.
Gov. John Kasich today signed a two-year transportation/public safety budget that will take effect on July 1. In addition to increasing the speed limit, the budget authorizes the quadrupling of Ohio Turnpike debt, guaranteed by future toll collections, to help finance a backlog of highway and bridge projects across the state.
“Obviously, a great day for the state,” said Mr. Kasich, standing in Tendon Manufacturing, Inc. in the Cleveland suburb of Warrensville Heights. “It’s just such a winner. You have the building trades, the unions. Some of those projects that could have been delayed for 20 years are going to get moved up.”
He said such a bond deal should have been done 50 years ago.
“You win when you challenge the status quo,” he said.
Rep. Matt Szollosi (D., Oregon), one of a handful of northwest Ohio Democrats who supported the bill, attended the bill-signing event. He said Mr. Kasich called him after the final House vote on the bill to ask him why he supported it. His answer: $3 billion in new construction.
— Effective July 1, sets new maximum speed limits at 70 mph on non-urban Interstates, 65 mph on urban outer beltways and congested highways, and 60 mph on some non-urban, two-lane highways as determined by the Department of Transportation.
— Borrows $1.5 billion in two installments against future Ohio Turnpike revenue to fund highway construction projects across the state.
— Requires 90 percent of that borrowing to be spent within 75 miles of turnpike corridor.
— Freezes tolls at current levels for a decade for E-ZPass users traveling less than 30 miles between turnpike exits, but turnpike could break this promise if it more revenue is need to meet its new debt obligations.
— Allows triple-trailer trucks that don’t need a special permit to drive the turnpike to also travel within 2 miles of the toll road corridor.
— Halves the late fee for vehicle registrations to $10.
— Requires the turnpike commission to create a mitigation program to help local governments deal with noise, drainage, and other issues.
— Provides $70 million to the turnpike to accelerate its ongoing replacement of the toll road’s aging deck.
— Renames and expands the turnpike commission and gives governor greater appointment authority over membership.
The Ohio Department of Transportation has indicated $600 million would have been spent on major new highway construction in northern Ohio, as defined in the bill, over the next 20 years if nothing had been done. The borrowing will generate $1.8 billion over six years for such projects.
“The impact this is going to have on economic development and job creation is hard to overstate,” he said.
The Republican governor used his line-item veto pen just once. He did not touch language added by lawmakers to cement his assurances to northern Ohio that the vast majority of their toll dollars will remain in that region of the state and that tolls would be frozen in place for local commuters.
There are no such legal assurances for other turnpike drivers, however. The Kasich administration has called for holding future toll increases for them at the annual rate of inflation, but that did not make the letter of the law amid concerns that those holding the new debt would frown on restrictions on the turnpike’s ability to raise revenue.
A newly named and expanded Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission has already begun the process that will lead to the borrowing of $1.5 billion on top of the roughly $500 million it now carries. When matching federal and local dollars are factored in, the plan is expected to generate $3 billion in additional highway lanes.
The plan is designed to jump start construction of new interchanges, replaced bridges, and other road projects that might otherwise have to wait their turn for decades to be funded through normal highway funding sources, primarily gas tax revenue and federal dollars.
Among the non-turnpike projects expected to get a boost in northwest Ohio are a rebuild of the interchange of I-475 and I-75, upgrades to the I-475 junction with U.S. 23 in Sylvania Township and the nearby Central Avenue interchange.
Nearly four decades after the speed limit was lowered nationally, Ohio’s limit will be raised from 65 mph to 70 mph on rural interstates effective July 1. The Ohio Department of Transportation will decide which roads will be classified as non-urban and eligible for the higher maximum limit.
The limit would remain at 65 mph on urban outer beltways, and ODOT would have the power to raise the limit to 60 mph on some non-urban two-lane highways. The turnpike is already at 70 mph.
Support and opposition crossed both party and geographic lines in the General Assembly. Some Republicans broke with their party to oppose the bill, particularly some in northern Ohio who worried the region would be double-taxed, paying both tolls and gas taxes, to rebuild other parts of the state.
Rep. Michael Ashford (D., Toledo) broke with fellow Democrats who support the bill. Once a provision was removed from the bill that would have increased weight limits for trucks from 80,000 to 90,000 pounds, he decided to embrace the 65,000 jobs that the Kasich administration estimated could be created by jump starting road projects.
“I’m not completely satisfied (with the 90 percent promise), but sometimes you have to move forward for the betterment of the constituents we serve,” he said. “I hope the governor keeps his word as far as putting 90 percent into our area, but that’s secondary.
“The primary reason for me is, based on the dollars in this bill, people will go back to work,:” Mr. Ashford said. “If the governor doesn’t deliver 90 percent of the money back into this area, he has to be responsible for his actions. I can’t hold him accountable for something he hasn’t done yet.”