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Debate rages over who should be at wheel of turnpike

BEREA, Ohio - Five years ago, Toledo-area students studied how the 82 percent toll increase on the Ohio Turnpike would affect businesses, the trucking industry, and safety on U.S. 24.

High school students from Springfield Local Schools concluded: “The legislature should pass legislation providing more control over the [Ohio Turnpike] Commission's decision. Why should all Ohio's highways be regulated by the Department of Transportation, except the toll road?”

Nearly three weeks ago, state Sen. Kevin Coughlin (R., Cuyahoga Falls) said he was ready to answer that question.

Shortly after the state's anti-corruption watchdog accused high-ranking Ohio Turnpike officials of accepting free gifts, meals, and pro sports tickets from contractors, Mr. Coughlin said he would introduce a bill to abolish the agency.

“It's time for the state to take over the turnpike,” said Mr. Coughlin, a Bowling Green State University graduate. “For too long, the Ohio Turnpike Commission has operated independently of the rest of state government.”

Mr. Coughlin is the latest legislator to call for the state Department of Transportation to take over the Ohio Turnpike Commission.

In February, 1999, state Sen. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon) sponsored a nearly identical bill. He also pushed a proposal to require legislative approval of the turnpike commission's budget. Both proposals died in committee.

“I have a long history of believing that everyone, including the turnpike commission - which is a creature of the legislature - should have more direct supervision,” he said recently.

Mr. Wachtmann said he was trying to keep alive the work of former state Rep. Fred Deering, the Monroeville Democrat who earned the nickname “Freeway Fred” because of his efforts in the 1980s and early 1990s to remove tolls from the 241-mile roadway.

Mr. Deering lost that battle.

The power of lobbyists who work to preserve the independence of the Ohio Turnpike Commission should not be underestimated, Mr. Deering said.

“It's a strong force of politically motivated people,” he said.

The legislature created the Ohio Turnpike Commission in a 1949 law that included a provision to dissolve the agency when the construction bonds issued to build the 241-mile roadway would be paid off in 1992.

But in 1990, the turnpike commission and its lobbyists convinced the legislature to keep the tolls on and to allow the agency to operate indefinitely.

Mr. Deering said in the 1980s that his review concluded that turnpike tolls would be needed to build interchanges until 1996, when ODOT could have started to operate the roadway with increased federal funding and no tolls.

ODOT could run the turnpike more efficiently and cheaper than the turnpike commission, said Mr. Deering, although he acknowledged the legislature might have to increase the gas tax to pay for maintenance.

ODOT is in charge of 17,000 miles of roadway, with an annual operating budget of $2.3 billion. The department has 5,886 employees, and its director, Gordon Proctor, is paid $116,460 a year.

The turnpike commission operates a 241-mile roadway, with 916 full-time employees and an annual budget of $215.9 million. Gino Zomparelli was paid $150,230 a year.

The debate about an ODOT takeover may not have much support in the legislature, but the state agency has played a powerful role in the aftermath of the Inspector General's report.

That report documented 170 instances in which Mr. Zomparelli and at least 30 other high-ranking turnpike employees accepted free meals, gifts, golf outings, and pro sports tickets from 18 companies doing business with the Turnpike Commission from 1999 to 2001.

The heads of the Inspector General's office and the state Ethics Commission said they never had “seen the level of gratuities accepted by other agencies that we encountered with the [Ohio Turnpike Commission].”

Mr. Proctor, an ex officio member of the turnpike commission, was the driving force in choosing Jack Marchbanks as the interim executive director to replace Mr. Zomparelli, who resigned under pressure from Gov. Bob Taft. Mr. Marchbanks is ODOT's district deputy director for central Ohio.

Last week, Mr. Proctor pushed for a version of an ethics policy for the turnpike staff. A Cleveland law firm drafted two versions, but ODOT's legal counsel recommended one and Mr. Proctor endorsed it.

Mr. Taft, however, has not taken a stance on whether the turnpike commission should remain semi-independent. The governor appoints four commission members and the fifth is the ODOT director - who works for the governor - but the commission hires and fires the executive director.

Tim Greenwood, chairman of the five-member turnpike commission, said Ohio needs a “healthy and serious debate” on a proposed ODOT takeover of the turnpike commission.

He said the turnpike commission remaining “semi-independent” from state government makes it easier to set goals - such as adding a third lane in each direction between Toledo and Youngstown and building a service plaza - and then accomplishing it. Rolling the turnpike under ODOT would put the roadway at the mercy of the “tension between the regions of Ohio” over transportation funding, Mr. Greenwood said.

“I spoke recently to a woman who was complaining about the tolls. I asked her, `Do you ever use the turnpike?' She said, `Very little.' I said, `OK, when you use it, do you pay for it? Do you realize you are paying taxes for all of these roads you don't use, like I-71 and I-77?'”

State Rep. Steve Buehrer (R., Delta), a nonvoting member of the turnpike commission, said he's leaning in favor of the status quo.

“It's a quality roadway, and the issues that have come up, although serious and certainly in need of being addressed, you don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

“ODOT has a lot of responsibilities and they're doing a yeoman's job in the face of decreasing funding and increasing demand. [The turnpike] is viewed as a great road, and people seemingly are willing to pay for the enhanced service,” he said.

But Mr. Deering said the Inspector General's report could build support for ODOT taking over the turnpike and one day removing the tolls.

“I'm glad I pursued it. I was comfortable that I had my facts and figures together. What bothers me is I think of the things we can do in state government if we made things more efficient, but for political reasons, people will not address the facts,” Mr. Deering said.

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