By February, the Ohio Turnpike Commission expects to undo a decade of driving truckers off the east-west artery with truck toll increases that were imposed during the 1990s to help pay for widening, new plazas, and other improvements.
Under the 18-month pilot program, the average trucker with a full load would pay about $31 to cross the state on the turnpike - $11.45 less than the current toll. To up the incentive for truckers to travel the turnpike, state troopers will be increasing patrols along alternative east-west highways, looking for speeding or overweight trucks.
The Ohio Department of Transportation will subsidize nearly all of the cost of the program, including assumption of $200 million or one-third of the turnpike's debt over the next decade - regardless of whether the pilot program continues. Those payments, with interest, will total about $230 million.
ODOT, which controls all state and U.S. highways except the turnpike, will also pay $3 million a year, $4.5 million over the 18-month period, for increased traffic enforcement. That will mean about 1,000 more patrol hours a week along about 1,300 miles of east-west roadways that truckers often use to avoid the tolls, such as U.S. 20 and State Rt. 2 in northwest Ohio.
The money will come out of ODOT's $1.8 billion construction budget, which the agency said will mean some improvement projects will be eliminated.
The turnpike commission has been paying $16 million a year on its debt so that cash flow can be used to offset much of the rate decrease. That still leaves another $8 million to offset, which state officials hope will be funded with toll revenues from the additional truckers returning to the toll road.
"I don't know if they can break even, but we think the higher volume will significantly offset the toll decrease," Gov. Bob Taft said yesterday at a press conference in Maumee.
State officials hope that by steering more truck traffic back to the turnpike, fatalities will be cut in half on the often two-lane side highways now frequented by tractor-trailers. Parts of such parallel highways have some of the state's highest fatality rates. While truckers often aren't to blame for the crashes, their trucks' heavy weight lowers the odds that motorists will survive collisions with them.
"Around four people a week are being killed on these parallel routes across the entire northern region of the state of Ohio, and with the additional resources that we'll be able to put to bear to this, we'll make a difference," said Col. Paul McClellan of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
Trucker Terry Jacobs, an independent hauler from Kalamazoo, said the toll decrease is enough to make him switch back to the turnpike instead of taking the side roads from Norwalk to Toledo when he's loaded.
"Look at the difference in the money there," he said of the proposal, after gasing up at an I-280 truck stop off the turnpike.
Minutes later at the same truck stop, however, trucker Robert Williams of Detroit said the decrease is not enough. He runs lumber and cans about twice a week between Detroit and northeast Ohio, and he's content to use U.S. 20 to cross northern Ohio for free.
ODOT expects the plan will mean an overall 30 percent reduction of truck traffic on the side highways, which could vary greatly. U.S. 20 and U.S. 20A could have about a 10 percent reduction in truck traffic west of Toledo, while east of the city U.S. 20 could have a 40 percent drop, the agency predicts.
Governor Taft this summer asked ODOT, the highway patrol, and the turnpike commission to figure out a way to move truck traffic to the turnpike and still keep the turnpike commission financially afloat. As part of that effort, the truck speed limit was increased Sept. 8. This month, the turnpike got plazas to cut the cost of diesel fuel about 5 cents a gallon below market rate.
Truckers' advocates and state officials said the key is reducing tolls. Still, Gary Suhadolnik, the turnpike commission's executive director, wouldn't commit to keeping all of the toll reductions after the pilot program ends.
"We will sit down and take a serious look at our traffic and revenue situation at that time and decide what the best approach for the turnpike will be," he said.
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