State ponders turnpike's fate
Legislators disagree on lease option, where proceeds will go
7:52 AM, Nov. 12, 2011 | The News Messenger.com
By Mark Tower
Traffic passes through Ohio Turnpike tollbooths Wednesday in Fremont. / Jonathon Bird/News-Messenger
FREMONT -- On a recent visit to Fremont, Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jerry Wray laid out what he and other state officials are doing to determine the future of the Ohio Turnpike.
"The issue is the turnpike and, first of all, why would we want to do something with the turnpike," Wray said. "Secondly, if we are going to, what would that be; and how would that happen. And if we generated revenue from that, what would we do with that revenue."
Each of those questions is controversial. Some state lawmakers question the need for any change at all, while others have strong opinions about who should benefit from any lease proceeds.
The 241-mile-long toll road, which runs east-to-west through Northern Ohio from Indiana to Pennsylvania, is administered and maintained under the direction of the nine-member Ohio Turnpike Commission.
Gov. John Kasich and other state officials have proposed options for the road's future, including leasing its operation to a private company or turning management over to the Ohio Department of Transportation.
State transportation officials met Wednesday with five consulting companies, a group that had been whittled down from 14. All five are bidding on a study meant to determine the feasibility and economics of the options on the table.
Wray said the state transportation system, including the turnpike, faces falling revenue and rising costs.
"We have a real revenue crunch," he said. "As we look around and say 'What assets do we have that we could perhaps leverage to bridge the gap until there is more funding for transportation infrastructure?' And one of the things we are looking at is the Ohio Turnpike."
State Rep. Matt Lundy, D-Elyria, is an outspoken critic of a turnpike lease. He compared the promises of added revenue to the pitch of a Wild West patent medicine salesman.
"He says he is going to cure all your ills, and then he leaves," Lundy said. "They want Ohioans to believe that all their infrastructure ills and woes will be solved simply by leasing the Ohio Turnpike. I think that is an exaggerated representation of what is and isn't possible."
State Rep. Rex Damschroder, R-Fremont, has some issues with the direction the state is taking on the turnpike, but said there is excess spending under the current system.
"I don't think doing nothing is the best solution," Damschroder said. "I'm sure there is an asset there that is underutilized."
Lundy argued state leaders should not spend any money on a study, saying state residents are largely opposed to a lease.
"My position is, why spend money on consultants when Ohioans don't want this to take place in the first place," he said.
In a Quinnipiac poll in September, 56 percent of Ohio voters said a turnpike lease was a bad idea. About 32 percent considered it a good idea. In Northwest Ohio, 65 percent of those polled opposed a lease.
Wray said the study will be completed by independent consultants, so the process will be fair.
"It is going to be a transparent process," he said.
ODOT spokesman Steve Faulkner said if the study determines privatization is the best option, the goal would be to have a proposal in front of the Ohio General Assembly before the end of 2012.
The next step, Wray said, is figuring out what to do with the road.
On one side are those who completely oppose privatization, like Lundy. He said a private company would likely downgrade services and increase tolls, resulting in trucks diverting and damaging nearby roads.
"Once motive becomes profit, then it's all about the dollar, not about the quality and the service," Lundy said. "The greatest fear is this is going to result in trucks using other routes and tearing them up; that it would lead to even more infrastructure damage."
According to a study published in February by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, a lease of the turnpike would increase tolls and truck traffic on other routes.
Data collected by the agency suggests a 25 percent increase in tolls would result in 2 percent fewer trucks on the turnpike. A 50 percent increase, according to the study, would result in 13 percent fewer trucks. More than half the truck traffic is expected to leave the highway if tolls are doubled.
When the turnpike was proposed, Damschroder said, Ohioans were promised the road would be toll-free in 1992 after the construction debt was paid. He proposes that promise should finally be fulfilled.
"The legislature voted in 1992 to keep the tolls and ignore the original contract with Ohio voters," Damschroder said. "The rest of Ohio pays nothing for their four-lane highways. That's all it is, is an extra tax."
His idea is to give state residents a free pass to travel the turnpike, which he believes would only slightly decrease state revenue or receipts from a potential lease.
Wray said he recognized most individual trips on the turnpike are made by local commuters, but said that group of drivers makes up a minority of the commission's revenue. That is just one of the pieces, he said, that the study will detail and analyze.
"We have not decided to do anything with the turnpike," Wray said. "What we have decided to do is to analyze the options that we have with the turnpike. We're interested in doing an analysis to determine how we can leverage this asset."
The final controversial decision is what to do with any funds gained, if the leasing option is approved.
Kasich recently promised the majority of proceeds from a deal would benefit infrastructure projects in northern Ohio. He defined the region as anything north of U.S. 30, which runs across the state from Van Wert, at the Indiana border, to East Liverpool, which borders West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
During his visit to Fremont, Wray also pledged proceeds would go to communities through which the turnpike passes.
"The majority of the money will go to northern Ohio," he said.
Damschroder said he doesn't understand why any of the money would go to projects south of U.S. 30.
"That would make as much sense as putting toll booths up in southern Ohio and have the money pay for projects up here," he said.
Lundy agreed any proceeds should stay in northern Ohio.
"One hundred percent should stay in northern Ohio," he said. "Especially in the communities close to the turnpike. They are the communities that will see their roads and highways suffer."
Wray suggested a program be set up in which local townships, villages and cities along the turnpike could apply for some of the funds to repair bridges or build noise barriers.
"Where you have been negatively impacted by the presence of the turnpike, we'll fix your problem," he said.
ODOT officials say the 11 damaged bridges spanning the turnpike in Sandusky County will be fixed, regardless of how the toll road is managed.
Local legislators were able to include language in the state's transportation budget bill, signed by Kasich in March, requiring the Ohio Turnpike Commission to pay for the bridge repairs.
The repairs began on Riley Township Road 226 in August and all the roads are expected to be repaired by the end of 2014.