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Published: Friday, 7/28/2006

Ohio Turnpike tolls could go up again

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Two years after the Ohio Turnpike Commission rolled truck fares back by an average of 25 percent to entice big rigs away from secondary routes, tolls could rise again - with truckers still paying less than they did before the rollback, but car drivers paying more.

The turnpike commission on Monday is likely to direct toll-road staff to schedule hearings on proposed fare revisions that Gary Suhadolnik, the turnpike's executive director, said yesterday would include a penny-per-mile increase for large trucks and buses (classes 4 through 11) and a half-penny-per-mile increase for passenger cars and trucks, passenger vehicles with trailers, and other smaller vehicles (classes 1 through 3).

The proposed fare schedule also would be simpler, Mr. Suhadolnik said, with all tolls rounded to the nearest quarter. On some short trips, the impact of rounding down could actually be greater than the per-mile increase, he said, so some travelers would end up paying less than they do now.

But for a car traveling the turnpike's full 241-mile length, the fare would rise from $8.95 to $10.25, while a Class 8 trucker who now pays $31 to travel from Indiana to Pennsylvania would pay $33.50 if the turnpike commission approves the new rates. Class 8 includes trucks weighing between 65,001 and 80,000 pounds.

"If they do raise the price, I think a lot of truckers are going to take different routes," said Chris Salowitz of Ubly, Mich., who drives for Bumble Trucking Inc. of Deckerville, Mich. He got off the turnpike at I-280 yesterday for gas.

"But if time was the issue over price, everyone is going to take the turnpike," he said.

Harry Fry of Beaver, Pa., an independent driver for 25 years, said he might again endure the stop-and-go traffic of side roads if the turnpike gets too expensive.

"When they reduced tolls initially and raised the speed limit, that took me off [U.S.] 20 and on the turnpike. If they change it again, I'm back to 20," he said. "If they want to alter that, we're going to alter our routes."

But Mike Schnopp of Bruceton Mills, W.Va., also an independent driver, said fuel prices are more of a concern than a couple of extra dollars in tolls.

He noted that he spent $560 yesterday to fill his truck for the third time this week.

"I can drive 65 and get from Point A to Point B to drop off my load - that's what makes the difference," Mr. Schnopp said, adding that he uses the Ohio Turnpike at least twice a week and doesn't foresee changing his route.

The fare rollback implemented last year benefited only vehicles weighing between 23,001 and 80,000 pounds, whereas the rates now proposed would apply as well to passenger vehicles weighing less than that and heavier trucks, including tandem-trailer rigs that are not allowed on the secondary roads.

The turnpike commission would not actually approve the new rates until after the as-yet unscheduled hearings.

Mr. Suhadolnik noted that if no action is taken, truck rates will revert on Jan. 1 to their 2004 levels - those in effect before implementation of a Taft administration proposal to woo truckers away from secondary roads like State Rt. 2, U.S. 6, U.S. 20, and U.S. 422 where trucking had boomed following a cumulative 82 percent toll hike imposed between 1995 and 1999.

"Overall, this is a permanent toll reduction," the executive director said. "We're going to give up $12 million in toll revenue."

Before the rate rollback, the Class 8 truck fare from end to end on the turnpike was $42.45. But as part of a package that also featured a Sept. 8, 2004, increase in the truck speed limit on the turnpike from 55 to 65 mph, the turnpike commission agreed to lowering truck tolls in exchange for a compensatory payment of $23 million from the Ohio Department of Transportation.

State officials likened the ODOT payment to "buying capacity" on the toll road instead of spending it to upgrade the parallel routes to accommodate the growing truck traffic.

But the ODOT subsidy ran out last month, Mr. Suhadolnik said, and in the meantime the turnpike has incurred additional costs for a state-mandated emergency radio system, a share of the cost for improving the State Rt. 8 interchange north of Akron, and generally rising costs for fuel, construction, and maintenance.

"We're struggling to make ends meet and maintain the road," the executive director said.

The toll reduction-speed increase in 2004 was motivated by a string of truck crashes on parallel routes, several of which caused multiple fatalities. While officials said that the truckers themselves were rarely to blame in those crashes, their rigs' mere presence created a slim margin for other motorists' errors.

After the speed limit went up and the tolls went down, truck-traffic crashes on the secondary routes decreased but, according to the Ohio Highway Patrol, truck crashes on the turnpike increased out of proportion to the increased number of trucks using the toll road.

The highway patrol blamed that one-year trend on the higher speed limit which, unlike the toll-rate reduction, was permanent when adopted.

In March, the turnpike commission voted to extend the 18-month toll reduction by another six months - through the end of this year - to allow time for more data about the lower rates' impact to be amassed. No further analyses have been released since the highway patrol's report issued later that month.

Mr. Suhadolnik conceded yesterday that the truck-attraction program had not been as successful as officials had hoped it would be.

"Now we need to adjust [toll] rates so we can continue the revenue" and find a balance between maximizing truck volume while preserving maintenance, the executive director said.

Staff writer Meghan Gilbert contributed to this report.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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