A 90-day public comment period will be required before the Ohio Turnpike Commission can lower tolls for large trucks on the turnpike.
The five-member commission voted unanimously yesterday to proceed with an 18-month trial of lower truck fares to see if it can attract big rigs back from secondary routes that parallel the 241-mile toll road across northern Ohio.
But before it can lower the tolls, the commission must conduct three public hearings, the first of which will start the 90-day public comment period.
The Ohio General Assembly enacted the public comment requirement in response to the turnpike commission's April, 1995, vote to raise tolls by 80 percent, a decision made with virtually no advance notice. In response to public protest, the commission later revised the plan so that an 82 percent increase was imposed in five stages that began that July and ended on Jan. 1, 1999.
The law requires the hearings and comment period before any change is made to the toll rates.
State Rep. Stephen Buehrer (R., Delta), the Ohio House of Representatives' nonvoting delegate to the turnpike commission, said after the meeting yesterday he will seek an amendment allowing an exception for rate decreases, or possibly for "trial" changes in the toll rates.
Mr. Buehrer said the turnpike's progress toward lowering truck tolls and its approval of a separate resolution yesterday stating its intent to maintain all ramps at the State Rt. 49 interchange near Edon are both "good news" for northwestern Ohio.
Earlier this year, turnpike officials proposed closing the eastbound exit and westbound entrance at Route 49 to discourage trucks from using those ramps to connect between the Indiana Toll Road and U.S. 20 in Ohio without paying any Ohio Turnpike tolls.
But yesterday, Gary Suhadolnik, the turnpike's executive director, told commissioners the new plan of reducing tolls, increasing the turnpike's truck speed limit to 65 mph, and stepping up law enforcement on secondary routes should accomplish the same goal of attracting trucks back to the turnpike from roads like State Rt. 2, U.S. 20, U.S. 30, and, in northeast Ohio, U.S. 422.
Maintaining the Route 49 ramps "keeps a valuable tool in our economic development arsenal," Mr. Buehrer said.
The proposed toll reductions will average 25 percent. To offset the lost revenue, the Ohio Department of Transportation will pay the turnpike about $15.6 million per year from its highway construction budget - a commitment that ODOT will continue even if the rate reduction is allowed to expire after the 18-month trial ends.
The toll plan was announced by Gov. Bob Taft during a news conference one week before yesterday's meeting, prompting Mr. Suhadolnik to observe that the vote yesterday was "really anti-climactic."
The first hearing will be Monday at 10 a.m. in the turnpike's administration building in Berea. The second and third hearings will be held in the Toledo and Youngstown areas on dates still to be determined.
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