With permission to pursue Ohio Turnpike privatization freshly granted in the biennial state budget bill, Gov. John Kasich returned to Toledo Monday to pitch the idea at a news conference during which he reiterated potential infrastructure benefits it might make the state able to afford, but backpedaled on specifics of how it would work.
As he has virtually since taking office, the governor called the turnpike a “very under-utilized asset” that could become a money-maker for both a private operator and the state of Ohio with a properly structured lease.
Governor Kasich likened the proposal to a homeowner who also owns an undeveloped plot next door, and leases it to a farmer who raises crops to provide income for both.
“We could get billions of dollars to improve highways, bridges, and waterways,” he said during the news conference at the Ohio Department of Transportation’s field office for its ongoing I-475 modernization project in West Toledo.
Asked where he thought the turnpike’s revenue stream could be enhanced in similar fashion, the governor said it would be in the private operator’s best interest to attract increased traffic to the toll road, such as by improving restaurants and other services that it offers.
But State Rep. Michael Ashford (D., Toledo), in a separate news conference half an hour later outside the same ODOT field office, said the Kasich administration appeared willing to settle for far less revenue on any deal than Indiana got five years ago for its shorter turnpike, and predicted that “selling the Turnpike” would simply result in higher tolls and job losses at the turnpike.
“Let’s talk about the job growth, and where the money’s going,” Mr. Ashford said.
“Nobody’s going to worry about quality, or what people are going to have to pay to use the turnpike,” George Tucker, the executive secretary for the Greater Northwest Ohio AFL-CIO, said before predicting higher tolls would result in more traffic and accidents on parallel secondary highways.
During previous news conferences, Governor Kasich said turnpike privatization might fetch $3 billion for the state, along with a cut of toll revenue thereafter for the life of a lease. Indiana received $3.85 billion from a Spanish-Australian consortium to which it leased the Indiana Toll Road in 2006 for 75 years, but that deal included no share of toll revenue thereafter.
Any private operator would be required to adhere to performance and maintenance standards for the turnpike and would have to agree to toll-increase limitations in its lease, state Transportation Director Jerry Wray said at the governor’s side.