At a time when shippers demand lower rates for an ever-dwindling pool of freight, the prospect of higher tolls on the Ohio Turnpike is intolerable to the trucking industry, several local industry leaders told Ohio Turnpike Commission representatives during a hearing last night in Toledo.
"This is not the right time, gentlemen, to talk about price increases," Keith Tuttle, the owner of Northwood-based Motor Carrier Service, said after remarking that his company's trucks already avoid the Indiana Toll Road and Pennsylvania Turnpike whenever possible because of recent toll increases.
And Jeff Wingate, the owner of Wingate Transport in North Toledo, said he's already shifting as much of his company's hauling as possible to north-south routes that don't involve toll roads because of "a very cutthroat environment" in freight pricing.
New toll rates the turnpike commission announced last month and presented to the hearing at Government Center last night wouldn't take effect until late next year, coinciding with the turnpike's planned introduction of electronic tolling on the 241-mile toll road across northern Ohio.
Some trucks will pay less under the new rates if they use the electronic collection system, known best by the trade name E-ZPass, because the turnpike plans to change how it assigns trucks to rate classes.
Instead of using vehicle weight for that purpose, it will count axles, so heavy trucks generally will pay less under the new rates while lightly loaded or empty ones will pay more.
Drivers of cars and light trucks, meanwhile, will pay close to 50 percent more in tolls under the new rates unless they use the electronic system, in which case their fares won't change.
Motorists towing trailers also will begin paying on an axle-count basis rather than by vehicular weight.
The proposal includes a second round of toll increases, averaging about 9 percent, that would take effect on Jan. 1, 2012, and affect all toll-road users - though those paying electronically would continue to receive hefty discounts.
Among those urging the turnpike commission to reconsider its plan is state Sen. Steve Buehrer (R., Delta), who in a letter yesterday to turnpike officials wrote that the plan "is a net tax increase for the majority of travelers on the turnpike" because he said most travelers won't use the electronic-tolling system.
"I have real concerns that an increase in fees at this time of economic downturn will cause significant hardships for some individuals and change transportation behavior in the turnpike corridor in a way that will not benefit either the turnpike or the state," Mr. Buehrer wrote, warning in particular that a toll increase could push heavy trucks back onto parallel secondary roads.
Mr. Buehrer also said that while he strongly supports the introduction of electronic tolling, the turnpike should take care to make fees and prepayment levels affordable for customers.
"This change is long overdue and brings Ohio into conformity with other states who are working to make the travel experience as friendly as possible for its customers," the senator wrote.
After the brief hearing, L. George Distel, the turnpike's executive director, said he acknowledges the trucking industry's situation, but also has to cope with rising fuel and materials costs for turnpike maintenance and capital improvements.
"We've done our best to come up with a plan we think is reasonable," Mr. Distel said.
Electronic tolling is to be installed on the Ohio Turnpike during the course of an ongoing, $50 million overhaul of the highway's toll-collection system.
The system works using small radio transponders that are read electronically at toll plazas to record vehicle entry and exit points. Tolls are charged against prepaid accounts that can be replenished using a credit card or directly from a bank account.
The Ohio Turnpike expects to begin offering E-ZPass transponders from a customer service center next spring, but transponders already can be obtained from toll authorities in other states and function in all states participating in the E-ZPass system.
Later hearings on the toll plan are scheduled for Tuesday evening in Boardman, and Jan. 12 at turnpike headquarters in Berea.
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