April 17, 2014

Elyria
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Lawmaker says leasing turnpike means worse road, higher prices

SHEFFIELD — Ohio Turnpike privatization would be financial roadkill for taxpayers forced to pay more to drive poorly maintained roads, residents were told at a Thursday briefing on the proposal.

Cars pass through the toll booth onto the Ohio Turnpike off state Route 57 in Elyria on Thursday. (CT photo by Steve Manheim.)

State Rep. Matt Lundy, D-Elyria, told about 50 people at Village Hall that appointees of Republican Gov. John Kasich like Jerry Wray, Ohio Department of Transportation director, would have final say on privatization, not lawmakers.

Lundy said lawmakers would vote on a draft of the plan, not the specifics of it.

“I don’t like to give away my ability to represent you,” Lundy said. “This decision’s going to have an impact on future generations.”

With Republican majorities in the state House and Senate, Lundy said privatization is likely, although voters could try to overturn it by referendum. Lundy said the privatization was driven by Kasich’s ideology that the private sector is always more efficient than government. He said Kasich should host town-hall meetings around the state to detail the plan.

“This governor kind of thinks that he knows it all,” Lundy said. “He simply doesn’t listen.”

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols countered that not exploring privatization would be like Kasich keeping his head in the sand with less infrastructure money available from federal taxpayers.

Kasich, who turned down federal infrastructure money for a high-speed rail project, said in February said he wants at least $3 billion for the Turnpike, according to The Plain Dealer.

However, Nichols said it’s too early to say how much the state wants and that privatization is not a done deal.

“If we’re not getting the price we want, we won’t do it,” said Nichols, reached by phone after the meeting. “You don’t do this stuff by ideology or just for the sake of privatizing or selling. You do it because it makes financial sense.”

While there may be less infrastructure money, privatization will also mean less maintenance and workers for the Turnpike, said Gary Tiboni, president of Teamsters Local 436, which represents Turnpike workers. Tiboni said privatization would be a slap in the face to workers who previously agreed to buyouts and wages freezes with the Ohio Turnpike Commission, which runs the 241-mile roadway that spans northern Ohio.

Tiboni said workers earn decent wages and benefits but work hard. Especially in the winter, plowing the highway and collecting tolls in frigid weather while breathing in gasoline fumes all day.

Tiboni said the Turnpike doesn’t need federal infrastructure money because it is self-sustaining thanks to toll revenue. He said the road earns about $20 million annually.

“Why would you even think of getting rid of an asset that made you $20 million?” he asked.

Tiboni said tolls doubled on the approximately 150-mile Indiana Toll Road since it was leased in 2006 in a $3.8 billion, 75-year deal with an Australian-Spanish consortium that pays no annual taxes to the state. The Macquarie Infrastructure Group, the Australian half of the Toll Road consortium, is one of the groups that are finalists for leasing the Turnpike.

“The Turnpike is the cleanest road in the state of Ohio,” Tiboni said. “Have any of you ever ridden on the Indiana (Toll Road)? It’s crap. The road’s falling apart.”

Several audience members were also sour on the Kasich plan. Charles Pervo of Amherst said that privatization traditionally means maximizing profits by minimizing services. He said a poorly run roadway could hurt Ohio’s image with tourists.

“A lady goes in the ladies room, and it’s a disaster — that is her entire impression of our state,” Pervo said. “The Turnpike is a place where we have an opportunity to put on a very good image to shine in the eyes of visitors.”

NOACA says no, no

A Feb. 25 analysis by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency panned Gov. John Kasich’s proposed Ohio Turnpike privatization. Among the findings:

  • Because the Turnpike is self-sustaining from toll revenue, one-time money for infrastructure improvements that privatization could generate isn’t necessary.
  • Any money saved by laying off turnpike workers or cutting their salaries would only mean more profit for the group leasing the Turnpike rather than benefit for taxpayers.
  • Desire for profit could lead to less maintenance.
  • The privatization of the Chicago Sky Way and Indiana Toll Road sharply increased tolls.
  • Higher tolls on the turnpike have traditionally led to more congestion and accidents on nearby routes by drivers seeking to avoid the Turnpike due to avoid the increases.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.