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Published: Saturday, 12/18/2010

70-mph limit mulled for Ohio Turnpike

Ohio Turnpike traffic could speed up just a bit come spring: the Ohio Turnpike Commission is to vote Monday on a proposal to increase the toll road's speed limit from 65 mph to 70 for all vehicles.

Getting trucks off parallel secondary roads such as State Rt. 2 and U.S. 20 is the idea, said Pioneer, Ohio, Mayor Edward Kidston, the turnpike commission member who has placed the proposal on the board's agenda. Pioneer is on U.S. 20 in western Williams County, just north of the turnpike.

Eliminating the turnpike's split speed limit, under which trucks and private buses were restricted to 55 mph while other vehicles could go 65, in 2004 was effective at luring truckers to the toll road, "and I'm hoping we can get another 15 to 20 percent of them off" the side roads by going to 70, Mr. Kidston said Friday.

"I'm wondering why it's taken this long to do it," he said. "The turnpike is designed for 70. It's the finest road in the country."

If approved, the increase would take effect on April 1, said L. George Distel, the turnpike's executive director.

"This is intended to help move truck traffic from the parallel routes to the turnpike, which is better designed to accommodate traffic at those speeds," he said.

Mr. Distel said the turnpike has complete authority over the toll road's speed limit, so no public legislation is required. The Ohio State Highway Patrol, which provides traffic enforcement under contract to the turnpike, has been notified of the proposal, he said.

Capt. Roger Hannay, commander of the state patrol's Turnpike District, said his organization will have no recommendation.

"We'll stay as neutral as we can," Captain Hannay said, describing the patrol's role as being to continue to enforce the speed limit, whatever it may be, diligently and "continue to evaluate the crash picture.

"We encourage decision-makers to properly evaluate the statistics," he said.

A highway patrol study conducted after the split speed limit's elimination and an accompanying trucker-friendly fare reduction found the 65-mph speed limit for trucks boosted commercial-vehicle volume on the turnpike by 22 percent, while it declined on surveyed parallel routes by 16 percent. The average truck speed increased to 67 mph, an 8 mph jump, while the average passenger-car speed increased to 74 mph, 1 mph higher than when trucks were slower.

Dan Castrigano, the turnpike's chief engineer, said more recent speed surveys show similar results, with a typical truck traveling at 66 mph and average car speeds in the low 70s.

Crashes on the turnpike spiked immediately after the speed-limit increase and toll reduction.

During the 18-month period the patrol sampled, fatal or injury crashes involving commercial vehicles on the turnpike during dry-road conditions increased by 56 percent.

Crashes in which a commercial vehicle driver was blamed increased to 680 from 482 during an 18-month comparison period before the increase, while at-fault commercial crashes on the parallel routes declined to 1,961 from 2,089, a 6 percent drop, during the same time.

Captain Hannay said total crashes on the turnpike declined by 20 percent during 2009, but are up 8 percent year-to-date in 2010.

Mr. Distel said he had no more-detailed statistics, but staff were preparing a report to submit to the commission before its vote.

Mr. Kidston said he first broached the subject with his fellow commissioners several months ago.

"I've thought about this for a long time," he said. "I have no reservations at all about it. This is the right thing to do. I don't know if we've got the votes or not on the commission."

He said he had not consulted with, or been contacted by, anyone in the trucking industry about the proposal. Larry Davis, president of the Ohio Trucking Association, could not be reached for comment.

Having posted a 65-mph limit for cars when it opened in the mid-1950s, the Ohio Turnpike boosted that to 70 from 1964 until 1974, when a 55-mph national speed limit was enacted as a conservation measure in response to the Arab Oil Embargo.

But according to the turnpike commission, trucks always had been restricted to 55 before 2004.

The Indiana Toll Road, which connects to the Ohio Turnpike's west end, has a 70-mph limit for cars, but trucks and buses are limited to 65.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike's limit is 65 mph for all traffic.

Outside of urban areas, Ohio maintains a 65-mph limit on its freeway system. It maintained a 55-mph limit for trucks after the turnpike allowed those vehicles to go 65, but in 2008 followed the toll road's lead in abolishing the split speed limit on rural Interstate System highways.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.

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