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Published: Tuesday, 7/16/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Turnpike tolls rising to pay $1.5B in new debt

Average cost jumps 2.7%on Jan. 1 to fund projects

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF
Under state law, Ohio Turnpike tolls would remain frozen at current levels for commuters using E-Z Pass and traveling less than 30 miles between exits. Under state law, Ohio Turnpike tolls would remain frozen at current levels for commuters using E-Z Pass and traveling less than 30 miles between exits.
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COLUMBUS — The cost of traveling the 241-mile Ohio Turnpike is about to go up for most drivers to pay off what ultimately will be $1.5 billion in new debt for highway and bridge projects off the turnpike corridor.

Tolls will generally climb 2.7 percent as of Jan. 1, the first of 10 such annual increases expected to be implemented to repay the bonds. The increase is tied to the expected regional rate of inflation.

Under state law, tolls would remain frozen at current levels for commuters using E-Z Pass and traveling less than 30 miles between exits.

The newly renamed Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission in Cleveland also agreed Monday to issue the first $1 billion in 37-year bonds with the other $500 million to come later. In all, the $1.5 billion is expected to draw matching federal and local funds to generate a total construction budget of $3 billion.

The borrowing includes $70 million to help the turnpike pay for its ongoing replacement of the original highway deck.

The move, proposed by Gov. John Kasich, is designed to jump-start nonturnpike projects that might otherwise have languished for decades because of stagnating gas tax revenue and federal highway funds. The construction projects are expected to create about 65,000 jobs.

“States have been leveraging their turnpikes in recent years,” said turnpike Executive Director Rick Hodges, a former state representative from Delta. “The wisdom of the governor’s plan is the turnpike has final authority over what projects are funded. They must be projects that support the turnpike.

“Other states have money being siphoned off to projects anywhere in the state,” he said. “In Ohio, a transportation project must be related to turnpike so that we’re investing in the turnpike’s future as well.”

The toll increases were authorized earlier this year in legislation that, for the first time, borrows against the dollar value of the turnpike across northern Ohio to pay for nonturnpike projects. The turnpike’s debt would be roughly quadrupled, but Wall Street’s credit-rating agencies have given the bonds high marks because of the turnpike’s fiscal health.

Over the course of the next 10 years, the toll for an E-Z Pass-using passenger car traveling between Exit 64, the Toledo-Perrysburg exit at I-75, and Exit 118, the Sandusky-Norwalk exit at State Route 250, will gradually climb to $3.25, up from $2.50 currently.

An E-Z Pass driver traveling between Exit 64 and Exit 91, the Fremont-Port Clinton exit at Route 53, would see no increase because the commute is shorter than 30 miles. A similar driver without E-Z Pass, however, will see an increase from the current $1.75 to $2 next year, gradually climbing to $2.50 by 2023.

For passenger-car drivers using E-Z Pass and traveling the entire stretch of the highway, tolls would rise 25 cents to $11.50 next year and eventually reach $14.75 after a decade.

Even in the case of some other trips longer than 30 miles, there may not be an increase in the toll rate every year because the 2.7 percent hike would not rise to the level of increments measured in quarters.

It remains to be seen whether the toll increases could lead some truckers to abandon the turnpike for free parallel routes.

Larry Davis, president of the Ohio Trucking Association, said he’s heard no complaints from membership so far. The association had vehemently opposed the idea of a long-term lease of the turnpike to a private entity to raise money, but it ultimately signed on when that idea was abandoned for the borrowing plan.

“If you go back four or five years, the last two toll increases were a bigger percentage than what we would have over this 10-year period,” Mr. Davis said.

He said members realize that there wasn’t the funding in place otherwise for other projects off the turnpike without this plan.

“This is about better transportation in the future,” he said. “We understand that.”

A low five-axle tractor-trailer, a Class 4 vehicle, running the entire stretch of the turnpike from Indiana to Pennsylvania using E-Z Pass would see an increase of 75 cents to $30.75 on Jan. 1, climbing to $39.25 once the 10-year plan is fully implemented.

The same trip for a similar truck without an E-Z Pass would see an increase of $1 to $40 in 2014, ultimately climbing to $51.

The new law requires that at least 90 percent of the newly borrowed money be spent within 75 miles of the turnpike corridor, which, along I-75, could stretch about as far south as Lima. That provision was designed to address concerns by lawmakers from northern Ohio that the region should not be asked to subsidize toll-free highways and bridges in southern Ohio.

The process of identifying projects that would benefit from the turnpike borrowing is under way. On July 25, the state Transportation Review and Advisory Council, which sets major construction priorities, is expected to approve a draft list of projects that, for the first time, will include those that could see turnpike-related funding.

Following a public comment period, TRAC is expected to finalize a list on Aug. 22 and ultimately make recommendations to the turnpike commission. The commission may consider only projects deemed to have some “nexus” with the toll road.

Among the projects mentioned in northwest Ohio are a rebuild of the interchange of I-475 and I-75, upgrades to the I-475 junction with U.S. 23 in Sylvania Township and the nearby Central Avenue interchange.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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