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Published: Sunday, 5/18/2008

Finkbeiner pushes cities to resist shift in turnpike funds

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner is urging northern Ohio's largest cities to unite in opposition to a plan to divert hundreds of millions of dollars in Ohio Turnpike funds to help pay for a $1.57 billion economic stimulus package.

Under the proposal, as much as $20 million a year in turnpike revenue would be diverted to pay off $200 million in borrowing plus interest through 2030.

To accomplish this, lawmakers must change law requiring turnpike revenue to be spent within one mile of the toll road's corridor across northern Ohio.

The turnpike commission has not objected to the move but has been asked to appear before the House Finance and Appropriations Committee tomorrow to discuss how the move could affect future turnpike finances.

"[Our] cities could lose $400 million of potential economic development/transportation projects in our respective communities if this bill passes in its present form, even though the tolls are almost exclusively paid by our residents and area businesses [along with travelers passing through Ohio]," Mr. Finkbeiner wrote in a letter sent late Friday to the mayors of Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown.

Rep. Pete Ujvagi (D., Toledo) suggested the bill's language could allow a diversion of as much as $420 million, $20 million a year for 21 years, depending on the financing terms the bonds might draw.

The $1.57 billion jobs package is a compromise reached by Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland and the Republican leaders of the General Assembly a month and a half ago. Republicans objected to the amount of borrowing required to fuel Mr. Strickland's original $1.7 billion proposal.

The compromise would rely on money previously earmarked for smoking prevention programs, liquor sale profits, turnpike revenue, and other sources to directly pay part of the tab and pay back a lower amount of borrowing. The money would be used to spur road, bridge, and water line construction; college student internships; port infrastructure development; investment in biomedical products, and development of renewable and advanced energy sources.

"Basically, you'd have a situation where people who live in northern Ohio and use the turnpike, and businesses for whom trucking deliveries use the turnpike are the ones who'll be paying the bills to be used elsewhere in the state," Mr. Ujvagi said. "There's nothing wrong with that necessarily, but there has to be some equitable process. How can we in northern Ohio take greater advantage of this?"

When first announced, the $20 million a year was described by the Strickland administration as "excess" revenue anticipated from increased traffic because of the new E-Z Pass automatic toll collection system. But the bill submitted to lawmakers does not specify that the money must be surplus funds.

"It's not as though if the money is not there it won't be used, which could put pressure on future toll increases," Rep. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) said. "It has been basic policy that turnpike revenue can't be used outside the turnpike area itself. This has never been done before, to my knowledge."

Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills) said alternatives include taking money from the state's budget reserves or other sources.

"Another possibility is a disproportionate amount of those monies being spent in northern Ohio," he said. "Changing the law so that the money could be spent within 20 to 30 miles of the turnpike could be workable."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com,

or 614-221-0496.



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