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Published: Tuesday, 10/18/2011

Crowd urges officials not to privatize pike

BY GABRIELLE RUSSON
BLADE STAFF WRITER

ROSSFORD — Fearing for her job, Linda Crews, a toll collector at the Perrysburg exit on the Ohio Turnpike, pleaded with state legislators not to move forward on a proposal to privatize the turnpike.

“We’re trying to make a living,” said Ms. Crews, of Walbridge, who has worked on the turnpike since 1977. “A thousand people will not have jobs.”

She was among the 25 turnpike workers, local union members, and others — most of them opposed to privatizing the turnpike —who attended a town hall-style meeting in Rossford Monday night to address the issue.

State Reps. Matthew Szollosi (D., Oregon), Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), and Matt Lundy (D., Elyria) answered their questions during the one-hour meeting at The Carpenters Local 1138 hall.

Proponents for privatizing the turnpike have argued that leasing the 241-mile road could generate cash for the state to balance its budget and fund transportation projects.

During an occasionally testy exchange, residents brought up their concerns relating to what would happen if a private operator leased the turnpike, from the highway falling into disrepair to tolls rising astronomically — or to workers losing their jobs.

“It’s a state treasure,” said Rollie Romanoff of Sylvania Township, as the audience clapped enthusiastically. “It’s not for sale. Don’t sell it. Don’t lease it. It belongs to all of Ohio.”

While Mr. Szollosi and Mr. Lundy said they were both against Gov. John Kasich’s proposal, Ms. Sears said she had not yet made up her mind and wanted to study the issue further.

“We have an obligation and a responsibility to look at these assets and make sure we’re utilizing them in the right way,” she said to the crowd.

On Oct. 7, the U.S. Department of Transportation nixed a $1.5 million grant it had planned to give the state to study options for privatizing the highway. The decision to revoke the grant was made after the state’s five Democratic members of Congress protested it was an improper use of federal money.

Last week, 10 Republican congressional delegates asked the federal government to give back the grant, arguing the money would be well spent on the study.

“It was very disappointing to see some of the plan money be pulled back from the lease,” Ms. Sears said.

She said the state could negotiate options in its lease, such as charging Ohio drivers a lower toll rate than out-of-state drivers and only leasing for 30 to 50 years with an operator, instead of much longer.

“We’re not looking at a 75-year lease like Indiana did,” Ms. Sears said. “We have the ability to do a lot within the lease.”

Mr. Szollosi and Mr. Lundy said they feared truck drivers might avoid the turnpike, causing wear on state roads instead if tolls went up too high, or a foreign company might lease the turnpike.

“I’m deeply concerned,” Mr. Szollosi said. “I simply disagree with [the governor] this is a good initiative for Northwest Ohio.”

At the end of the meeting, one audience member sarcastically asked Ms. Sears if she was unsure what the crowd’s position was on the issue.

“I think I got it down pat,” Ms. Sears said.

“And you didn’t have to spend any money,” another woman said.

Contact Gabrielle Russon at: grusson@theblade.com or 419-724-6026.



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