The rush to cash in on leasing the Ohio Turnpike hit a bump in the road last week. It won't stop Gov. John Kasich's administration, but it does keep the issue in the public eye and make it less likely that Ohioans will wake up one morning to find that they no longer control the toll road they paid for.
Mr. Kasich has made no secret of his desire to privatize the turnpike, along with liquor profits, prisons, and other state assets. He has strong motivation to do so: In the short run, leasing would provide needed cash to fund his private economic development corporation, help balance the state budget, and pay for transportation projects.
But in the long run, leasing money-making enterprises will cost the state billions of dollars in revenue that will need to be replaced. In the case of the turnpike, many Ohioans also are concerned that tolls will rise, as many as 1,000 jobs will be lost, and turnpike maintenance will suffer. If that happens, more traffic -- especially big trucks -- will use parallel secondary roads, increasing maintenance costs and making those roads less safe.
Last week, several Democratic members of Ohio's congressional delegation who oppose the turnpike lease plan questioned the use of federal highway funds to explore lease opportunities. It was an obviously partisan move, but it achieved three purposes.
It put pressure on the U.S. Transportation Department to revoke a $1.5 million grant that would have funded the lease study. It forced Republican elected officials who represent communities along the turnpike's route to reveal where they stand on the issue. And it tests how serious Governor Kasich's administration is about leasing the turnpike for the foreseeable future.
The administration's initial request said vaguely that a federal grant would be used to study how leasing assets works in other states, without mentioning the Ohio Turnpike at all. It deserved to be turned down as a ham-handed attempt to game the system.
If the governor continues to believe leasing the turnpike is a good idea, let him come up with a transparent source of funding to study the issue -- although preferably not by putting his hands in the pockets of local governments again. Commission a full, nonpartisan examination at least as comprehensive as a preliminary study released last March by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, which concluded that leasing the turnpike had little benefit and a lot of "likely negative outcomes."
The argument for leasing the Ohio Turnpike should be clear and compelling. That case has yet to be made.
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