JULIE CARR SMYTH
TOLEDO — Highway and bridge construction projects put on hold a year ago for as many as two decades will be sped up under a proposal to use the Ohio Turnpike to raise as much as $3 billion for roadwork.
And it will be done without huge toll increases or giving away control of the turnpike, Gov. John Kasich said Thursday.
The plan comes two years after Kasich first floated the idea of getting more money out of the northern Ohio route that links the East Coast with the Midwest, suggesting Ohio follow the lead of other states and cities that have pocketed cash for their toll roads.
County leaders along the turnpike objected loudly to leasing the turnpike, fearing that a private operator would eliminate jobs, spend less on maintaining the road and impose higher tolls that would drive traffic onto local routes that meander through small towns.
“People need to understand we’ve listened to them,” Kasich said. “This turnpike will remain a valuable asset, and we will be able to unlock value in this turnpike for decades to come.”
The proposal centers on raising $1.5 billion through bond sales backed by future toll revenues. Up to an additional $1.5 billion could be generated by matching local and federal funds.
Nearly three dozen multimillion-dollar road projects slated for the coming years were put on hold or delayed significantly last January because the state’s transportation department said there just wasn’t enough money.
The turnpike financing plan, which will need some legislative approval, would erase a $1.6 billion highway budget deficit, said Ohio Transportation Director Jerry Wray. “We are going to move 20 years of projects into six years,” he said.
Most of the new money — perhaps 90 percent — would be spent on projects in counties in the northern third of Ohio, primarily those above U.S. Route 30.
That also would free more money to spend in the rest of the state, backers of the proposal said.
Democrats accused Kasich of essentially borrowing against the future and raiding the turnpike to spread money on projects across the state.
“There is no finer operated highway in the country,” said state Rep. Ron Gerberry, a Democrat from Austintown in northeast Ohio. “Why are we trying to fix something that works? I guess the answer is because there’s a pot of gold.”
Under the proposal:
— Tolls would be frozen for the next 10 years on passenger car trips of less than 30 miles that are paid for with an EZ pass.
— Toll increases would be capped for longer trips and trucks at the rate of inflation, which is less than previous toll hikes.
— No turnpike employees would be laid off.
— The Ohio Turnpike Commission would be renamed the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission and remain a public entity.
Gary Tiboni, president of the Teamsters local that represents close to 800 turnpike workers, said he was relieved the proposal will not change how the turnpike operates. “The governor got it right. It keeps my people working,” he said.
Kasich said he rejected the idea of leasing the toll road even though it would have brought more money because the state would have lost control over the roadway.
Ohio Trucking Association President Larry Davis said raising money through bonds is a better decision than leasing or selling the toll road.
“It makes more sense to leverage the value of what we already have to better our state’s roads and bridges than to roll the dice on an outside operator,” he said.
A group of county officials in northern Ohio, including Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, said they were happy that the turnpike will not be turned to over to private investors, but said they had some concerns and need more time to study the proposal.
Their biggest worry was over how much money will go toward roadwork in other parts of the state.
“To divert money that is being paid by the people that live and work in northern Ohio to pay for projects in other areas does not make good economic sense,” the group said in a statement.
Currently, all of the tolls and the sale of gas and food fund the maintenance and operation of the route, which stretches 241 miles.
The turnpike carries about 50 million vehicles each year across northern Ohio from Pennsylvania to Indiana on what is mostly Interstate 80.