November 27, 2014

Elyria
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Local officials declare support for keeping Ohio Turnpike publicly owned

Area legislators and officials weighed in Thursday on Gov. John Kasich’s plan for the future of the Ohio Turnpike with their opinions sticking close to party lines.

Details of the long-awaited plan revealed Thursday indicate that Kasich, a Republican, wants to generate as much as $3 billion for state road projects by selling $1.5 billion in bonds that the state will back by future toll revenues. He said he’ll also seek to raise another $1.5 billion through matching local and federal funds.

State law limits use of Turnpike revenue to the Turnpike. Kasich proposes using revenues from higher tolls to bolster other roads in the northern part of the state, and some state officials including Jerry Wray, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, say the plan would eradicate a $1.6 billion highway budget deficit and get stagnated road projects moving.

Kasich’s plan steered clear of what he initially had been kicking around — a plan to lease the toll road to a private company to bolster the state’s coffers.

Lorain County Commissioner Ted Kalo was among a number of regional officials who issued a joint statement expressing relief that Kasich had opted not to privatize the toll road.

“We are pleased that our efforts have deflected the governor’s misguided attempt to privatize the Ohio Turnpike and that he now recommends maintaining the Turnpike and all its revenue as public assets,” the statement said.

Kalo joined with Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, Mahoning County Commissioner John McNally and Erie County Commissioner Bill Monaghan in the statement.

In the statement, the four did express concern about the amount of gas tax revenue being diverted from northern Ohio to pay for projects in other areas of the state.

“To divert money 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,” they wrote.

A week ago, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for state officials to divert $140 million in gas tax revenue into the state’s general fund. That money must be used for highway upkeep, the court ruled.

“Consumers are already paying those gas taxes,” state Rep. Matt Lundy, D-Elyria, said. “We should start using that $140 million before we ask residents to pay higher tolls for projects throughout the state.”

State Rep. Dan Ramos, D-Lorain, was pleased with Kasich’s decision not to lease or sell the toll road while saying his “grave concerns over the idea of issuing bonds to borrow against the Turnpike and using funds generated by the Turnpike to pay for projects elsewhere.”

Ramos also expressed “serious concerns over any raise in toll rates” as the Turnpike is a vital transportation system for area residents and businesses and provides employment and income for the public and business community.

“Anything that would take away from that livelihood, especially in these economic times, is very troubling,” Ramos said.

The Turnpike is projected to take in $250 million in tolls in 2012. Some 50 million vehicles travel the toll road every year.

North Ridgeville Mayor David Gillock, a Republican, called Kasich’s plan “a home run” that will “make best use” of the Turnpike, while accelerating a few local projects that have long been stalled on the ODOT schedule.

“I’m pleased politics could be set aside to reach a cooperative agreement that will help move Ohio forward,” Gillock said.
The proposal also calls for 90 percent of proceeds from bond sales to go to infrastructure work in northern Ohio, but Lundy said 100 percent of proceeds should be used for local projects.

“The reality is that long after he’s (Kasich) gone, we still have to pay for it,” Lundy said, referring to the debt incurred from such a large bond sale.

Under Kasich’s plan, Turnpike tolls are expected to rise with the rate of inflation, while toll rates for those using the Turnpike’s EZ Pass will be frozen for 10 years, according to the Kasich plan.

“Ten years is a mighty long time,” Lundy said. “I wouldn’t bet on that promise being kept.”

Two of the state’s major business groups also weighed in favorably on the governor’s announcement.

The Ohio Trucking Association, which represents 900-plus state trucking and supplier companies, termed the Kasich plan “the best one for all travelers in the state.”

“We have a top-notch Turnpike with a stable and fairly predictable funding source,” association president Larry Davis said. “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.”

Chris Runyan, president of the Ohio Contractors Association, which represents more than 450 firms tied to the state’s heavy-highway and utility industries, termed the plan “the kind of innovative thinking that will continue moving Ohio forward” by ensuring future job opportunities.

“Ohio is a national logistics leader and it can’t be stressed enough that we need to keep that position,” Runyan said.

State Sen. Gayle Manning, R-North Ridgeville, and state Rep. Terry Boose, R-Norwalk, did not return calls for comment.

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or sfogarty@chroniclet.com.