July 25, 2014

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Ohio House passes $1.5 billion Turnpike bond deal

COLUMBUS — The Ohio House on Thursday approved Gov. John Kasich’s proposal to raise about $1.5 billion for state highway projects through Ohio Turnpike bonds, despite concerns about where the money will be spent.

Many northern Ohio lawmakers wanted guarantees that nearly all the money generated by bond sales would be used for road projects in the region near the turnpike, which cuts across northern Ohio. They also wanted the proposal to include Kasich’s pledge to freeze toll rates for a decade for motorists making trips of 30 miles or less on the 241-mile toll road.

But the bill, which passed by a vote of 58-36, included neither of those guarantees. The Kasich administration has said it will deliver on the promises, but placing precise spending targets in the law would limit flexibility.

The issue now goes to the Senate, which has started hearings on the measure.

State Rep. Terry Boose, a Norwalk Republican, equated the plan to a “punch in the face” for his district, saying he was concerned the measure might keep businesses from relocating to the area.

“The cost of the Turnpike is going to go up,” he said, contending companies could go to Lima, where they don’t have to pay for transportation.

When Kasich rolled out his plan for the Turnpike in December, he said northern Ohio road projects would get priority treatment with almost all the money being directed to projects north of U.S. Route 30.

Many local government and business leaders who initially backed Kasich’s plan made it clear they were supportive because they thought the money would go back to northern Ohio and the toll freeze would be in place for local travelers.

State Rep. Ross McGregor, a Springfield Republican, said Thursday that northern Ohio’s infrastructure needs still would be advanced further and faster under the proposal. He said the plan wasn’t a “silver bullet” to the state’s infrastructure needs but provides a helpful boost to getting construction projects up and running.

But state Rep. Chris Redfern, a Democrat from Catawba Island, said using bond proceeds shifts the obligation to people who don’t know they’re going to pay off the debt.

Redfern, who also is Ohio’s Democratic Party chairman, said that if the state has an infrastructure need, “we ought to have the courage of our convictions and stand up and say ‘We will fund these investments,’ instead of shifting the obligation to those of us who live within — myself, 15 miles of the Turnpike — who travel it too many times to count, and suggest to us that we should pay for that bridge in Zanesville. This is just bad public policy.”

Redfern didn’t vote on the bill.