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Published: Friday, 12/31/2004

Truckers cheer toll reduction that begins tomorrow

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Three truckers fueling their rigs in neighboring bays at the TravelCenters of America in Lake Township on a recent afternoon each had the same comment about an Ohio Turnpike toll reduction that begins tomorrow.

"It's about time."

"They should have done it a lot sooner," said Tim McNally, a driver from Youngstown who predicted that the combination of lower tolls and the 65-mph speed limit implemented in September will make him much more likely to use the turnpike instead of U.S. 20 during his regular runs between eastern Ohio and Chicago.

At 12:01 a.m. on New Year's Day, fares will drop by more than 25 percent for two of the most common classes of trucks and by 57 percent for trucks weighing between 80,000 and 90,000 pounds.

The higher speed limit and the lower tolls are the most prominent elements of a plan advanced by Gov. Bob Taft and the Ohio Turnpike Commission to attract big trucks back to the turnpike from secondary routes.

Those routes' truck traffic skyrocketed after the commission phased in an 82 percent toll hike during the late 1990s to fund a major capital improvement campaign.

The turnpike commission approved the rate reduction on Dec. 20, followed three days later by Mr. Taft's signing a bill authorizing ODOT to pay the turnpike $23.4 million from gas tax receipts to make up some of the lost revenue.

ODOT Director Gordon Proctor last summer equated such a transfer to buying traffic capacity on the turnpike instead of spending the money to expand the parallel roads.

The reduced rates will be in effect for 18 months. Thomas Noe, the turnpike commission's chairman, directed turnpike staff at the Dec. 20 meeting to be ready in 12 months with a preliminary report on the lowered tolls' impact.

"A year from January, we're going to know a lot," Mr. Noe said.

Lauren Dehrmann, a turnpike spokesman, said toll tickets with the old rates will be issued for at least a few more days until new tickets are received and distributed to the toll plazas, but the lower fares will automatically be calculated when truckers exit the toll road.

For an 80,000-pound truck, the rate change will reduce the cost of driving the full 241 miles of the turnpike from $42.45 to $31.

From the I-75 interchange near Toledo, that same truck will pay $8.25 instead of $9.75 to drive to the Indiana border, and $22.75 instead of $32.80 to drive to the Pennsylvania border.

The new rate schedule also simplifies the turnpike's fare structure, with six classes of trucks combined into three. Truck tolls on the Ohio Turnpike are calculated on the basis of weight.

Eugene Gingrich, a long-haul independent trucker from Shartlesville, Pa., said that for him the speed limit increase has been more important than the lower tolls, because the trucking company with which he has an operating contract reimburses him for 28 percent of toll expenses. Even so, he said, reduced tolls will make him use the turnpike more often.

Mr. McNally agreed, remarking that in the past he'd use U.S. 20, U.S. 250, and U.S. 224 to avoid the toll road whenever he didn't have a tight delivery schedule.

But Bob Huber of Steubenville said that while lower tolls are a good idea, "it doesn't help me a bit."

Mr. Huber drives a tandem steel truck on a regular route between Dearborn, Mich., and Cleveland, which when loaded weighs 120,000 pounds. At least in part because of federal weight limits for the Interstate System, he's not allowed on the toll road, so he drives the secondary routes with an overweight permit.

"These are the ones they really want off [U.S.] 20," Mr. Huber said.

He went on to complain about what he considers to be excessive law enforcement directed at trucks. "They're using trucks as a revenue source," he said.

But Mr. Huber's odds of getting a sympathetic ear on that score are poor: besides luring big rigs back to the turnpike with lower tolls and higher legal speeds, state officials plan to step up weight and speed limit enforcement on the secondary routes.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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