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Published: 8/12/2004

Taft wants trucks back on turnpike

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

BELLEVUE, Ohio - Gov. Bob Taft yesterday called for raising the truck speed limit to 65 mph and lowering tolls for big rigs on the Ohio Turnpike in an effort to steer more truckers back onto the roadway.

The governor also wants stricter weight enforcement by the Ohio Highway Patrol on alternative roadways paralleling the turnpike - such as State Rt. 2 and U.S. 20 - to discourage overweight rigs from rumbling through communities along the routes.

During news conferences in downtown Bellevue and at Camp Perry near Port Clinton, the governor called the turnpike "one of the finest highways in the United States," but one that is underused by trucks because of its tolls.

The result, Mr. Taft said, is that while truck traffic has boomed on other Ohio roadways during the past decade, it has remained virtually flat on the turnpike and grown much faster than average on parallel routes, leading to congestion and crashes.

The speed limit on the turnpike and Ohio freeways is 65 miles an hour for passenger vehicles and commercial buses and 55 mph for trucks and private buses.

Governor Taft said freeway speed limits should remain as they are, but the turnpike's should be raised for truckers because it is distinguished from other Ohio interstates by its lighter traffic, lack of urban interchanges, and higher level of law enforcement.

Reducing or rebating truck tolls could involve an annual subsidy of up to $15 million to $20 million from the Ohio Department of Transportation, department director Gordon Proctor told The Blade after the Camp Perry event.

He called the expenditure "a good safety investment. We're looking to buy excess capacity from the turnpike."

Governor Taft said he hopes to have plans for all three elements - speed, tolls, and weight enforcement - developed by the end of September.

Tom Noe, the turnpike commission's chairman, said the proposed 10 mph speed limit increase for truckers will be placed on the agenda for the commission's Aug. 23 meeting.

All of the ideas Mr. Taft presented have been discussed by turnpike officials "for awhile," he said.

"The speed limit is something we can do quickly," Mr. Noe said yesterday by telephone from Florida.

Michigan allows passenger vehicles to go 70 mph but trucks are held to 55 mph.

Indiana allows passenger vehicles to go 65 mph, but holds trucks to 60 mph.

Pennsylvania is 65 mph for both passenger vehicles and trucks.

Mr. Taft also urged the turnpike to study its options for electronic toll collection, such as the E-Z Pass system used in Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and other Eastern states.

While conceding that such systems are expensive to develop, "it's an option we should at least explore," the governor said.

Gary Suhadolnik, turnpike executive director, said when he took office last year he would consider an E-Z Pass-type system, though the commission has taken no public steps toward doing so.

The governor made his remarks after touring northwest Ohio secondary routes by helicopter.

Trucks rumbled by at regular intervals during both news conferences, occasionally drowning out Mr. Taft and other speakers.

The governor traveled later to deliver the same message to Troy Township in Geauga County, where U.S. 422 is a heavily used alternative to the turnpike between Cleveland and Youngstown.

Ohio Department of Transportation traffic counts show that trucking has nearly quadrupled on parts of U.S. 20 in Fulton County, nearly tripled on U.S. 6 at the Henry-Williams county line, and nearly doubled on State Rt. 2 at the Lucas-Ottawa county line since the turnpike raised tolls by 82 percent between mid-1995 and Jan. 1, 1999.

Statistics distributed during the news conferences also show that seven of Ohio's 10 rural state highway sections with the highest fatal accident rates are routes parallel to the turnpike.

The sections include U.S. 20 in Fulton, Lucas, Wood, and Lorain counties; Route 2 in Lucas County; U.S. 6 in Wood County; and U.S. 224 in Medina County.

Word of the governor's plan pleased people such as Mary Bricker, whose mother died in 2002 after pulling in front of a semi truck on U.S. 20 in Fulton County.

"She knew the toll road prices were going up," recalled Mrs. Bricker. "It was a common discussion between her and my brother and I that there were more trucks. Of course, we never thought about it until it hits home."

Mayor Marge Brown of Oregon, through which Route 2 passes and connects to I-280, said she, too, was pleased by the governor's plan.

But she promised that "we're going to keep the pressure on" the Taft administration and state legislators - some of whom attended the news conferences - to do something to get truckers back on the turnpike.

In Bellevue, where U.S. 20 trucking has risen by 75 percent since the toll increases, Mayor David Kile said officials will continue pressing for a bypass around the city, but consider the governor's proposals to be "a piece of the puzzle."

"Anything less than a bypass is not going to solve the total problem, but we'll take what we can get," Mr. Kile said.

Joe Kokai, a trustee in nearby York Township, Sandusky County, said the governor's plan "is definitely the right step. We should have thought of this 10 years ago."

Mr. Proctor said a Bellevue bypass is unlikely to be built in the foreseeable future because of its cost.

Subsidizing truck tolls on the Ohio Turnpike would be a way ODOT could reduce the amount it has to spend to upgrade parallel routes that trucks now use to avoid the turnpike, he said.

ODOT and turnpike staff also have discussed the possibility of refinancing the turnpike's bonds to reduce debt-service costs.

Mr. Suhadolnik ruled out raising passenger vehicle tolls to offset any revenue loss that might occur if truck fares are reduced.

"We really think the passengers are paying their fair share already," he said.

Edwin Nagle, president of a Lake Township trucking company, said the possibility of toll relief was most encouraging to his business.

Until about 12 years ago, he said, truckers received fuel-tax credits for mileage they drove on the toll road - credits that amounted to about 5 cents per mile, or about $10 to $11 per trip.

"If they start getting serious about tax credits, we'll be there," Mr. Nagle said.

While Mr. Taft cited an Ohio Trucking Association study in which two thirds of respondents said a higher speed limit would encourage them to use the turnpike, Mr. Nagle said that for his operations, the hour saved on a Toledo-Pennsylvania run would be offset by greater fuel consumption at 65 mph.

The Ohio State Highway Patrol has historically been opposed to raising truck speeds above 55 mph on safety grounds.

But yesterday, Lt. Rick Zwayer, a patrol spokesman, said the agency supports the Taft administration's goal of making secondary routes less dangerous, even if it might involve a 65 mph truck speed on the turnpike.

"There needs to be something done up in that area to deal with congestion and crashes on the secondary roads," Lieutenant Zwayer said.

The turnpike weighs all vehicles entering that roadway.

Governor Taft said those scales prompt "a significant number of overweight trucks" to use alternative routes.

The lieutenant said the state patrol is stepping truck weight enforcement on alternate routes.

"Certainly, we'd have to look at how we're going to do that," he said. "It would involve shifting responsibilities and re-allocating resources."

Another step the turnpike has been considering to discourage trucks from using U.S. 20 in extreme northwest Ohio is closing half of the State Rt. 49 interchange in western Williams County.

That proposal has generated substantial opposition from merchants and public officials in nearby communities, who contend their business development potential will be hurt if the eastbound exit and westbound entrance ramps are closed.

Blade Staff Writer Joe Mahr contributed to this report.

Contact David Patch at

dpatch@theblade.com or

419-724-6094.



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