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Published: Tuesday, 8/24/2004

Speed limit for trucks is raised to 65 mph; leaders hope big rigs will use toll road more

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

BEREA, Ohio - Truckers using the Ohio Turnpike legally will be able to "put the hammer down" a little farther starting Sept. 8.

The Ohio Turnpike Commission unanimously voted yesterday to establish a uniform 65-mph speed limit for all vehicles on that date. By eliminating the 55-mph limit for trucks and noncommercial buses, the panel implemented the first of a series of steps that Gov. Bob Taft recommended earlier this month to woo tractor-trailers back to the toll road from parallel secondary routes.

"The Ohio Turnpike is exceptionally well designed and maintained. We can handle the trucks at higher speeds," Gary Suhadolnik, the turnpike's executive director, told the commission's board. The board, without comment, approved the request 5-0.

Along with the speed-limit increase for trucks, the panel voted to extend its contract with Sunoco for service-plaza fuel sales, incorporating revised terms that risk up to $700,000 in revenue in an effort to reduce the pump cost of diesel fuel at service areas as another trucker incentive.

Mr. Suhadolnik said additional measures to entice truckers - most prominently, a possible reduction of truck toll rates - likely will be presented to the commission at its next scheduled meeting Oct. 18.

Larry Davis, president of the Ohio Trucking Association, praised the speed-limit increase as a "first step" that is "certainly going to help" attract trucks back to the turnpike.

"We certainly appreciate the efforts that are being made," Mr. Davis said. "This is going to bring trucks back up here."

In the past, the Ohio State

Highway Patrol has consistently opposed raising the truck speed limit above 55 mph.

Capt. Robert Ferguson, commander of the patrol's turnpike unit, said yesterday the increase on the turnpike has to be viewed from "a broader perspective."

"We'll have some new challenges to face with the 65 miles-per-hour speed limit, but I'm sure we will rise to that occasion," he said. "If we can maintain safety here, and improve safety on the other routes, then it's a win-win situation."

The captain promised "strict enforcement" of the higher speed limit, and said troopers will take a close look at tailgating, too.

During a briefing that followed the commission's formal meeting, Gordon Proctor, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, and several aides outlined steps they are taking to comply with Governor Taft's call earlier this month for a report by Sept. 30 listing strategies to get more rigs back on the pike.

According to ODOT projections, increasing the turnpike's truck speed limit alone should reduce truck traffic by more than 10 percent on many secondary routes and increase toll-road trucking by more than 25 percent east of Toledo.

Cutting tolls by 10 percent or more would attract even more trucks back to the turnpike, the projections show.

State officials acknowledged that the projections, based on traffic counts and driver surveys, cannot be strictly relied upon.

Mr. Proctor and turnpike officials said they will watch closely the traffic volumes and accident rates on both the turnpike and the parallel routes to assess the actual results.

Under the revised fuel concession agreement, the turnpike will forgo a flowage fee of six cents per gallon on diesel fuel so Sunoco can reduce pump prices at turnpike service stops, said Gerald Pursley, the toll road's deputy executive director. Instead, he said, the turnpike will receive 50 percent of Sunoco's retail profit on the truck fuel.

Although the move risks about $700,000 in current revenue, Mr. Pursley said the commission expects it "ultimately will receive more revenue as more trucks fuel up on the turnpike." The Sunoco contract may be reverted to its previous terms after one year if the turnpike is dissatisfied with the results from the revision, he added.

Traffic on roads such as State Rt. 2, U.S. 6, and U.S. 20 skyrocketed after the turnpike commission imposed a series of rate hikes totaling nearly 82 percent between July 1, 1995, and Jan. 1, 1999. The increased tolls have been used for a major capital program of turnpike widening, interchange rehabilitation, and service plaza reconstruction.

There also have been a series of high-profile collisions involving trucks on secondary routes - most recently, a multivehicle crash June 21 on State Rt. 2 in western Ottawa County that killed six people, four of them children. Though the truck drivers in that accident and many others have not been at fault, local officials have argued that the big rigs' mere presence make the roads more dangerous.

ODOT projections show five different scenarios for truck tolls on the turnpike, including no change, reductions of between 10 and 50 percent, and eliminating truck tolls altogether. The latter option would have the most dramatic impact - reducing truck traffic projections on U.S. 20 near Woodville by nearly 75 percent, for example.

But in a letter published today in The Blade's Reader's Forum, Mr. Proctor wrote that turning the turnpike into a freeway is not feasible because the turnpike's $700 million in bonded debt is more than ODOT can afford to absorb.

"A balanced combination of increased enforcement, toll reductions, and higher speed on the Ohio Turnpike should produce a synergy that attracts the most trucks with the resources Ohio has," he wrote.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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