COLUMBUS, OH (Toledo News Now) – Gov. John Kasich has announced a first-of-its-kind plan to generate approximately $3 billion for highway road construction without leasing the Ohio Turnpike, laying off Turnpike employees and raising tolls.
Kasich embarked on a two-day state tour as he and Ohio Department of Transportation director Jerry Wray, Ohio Turnpike director Rick Hodges and more, unveiled the new plan, stopping in Toledo, Cleveland and Youngstown.
The Ohio Jobs and Transportation Plan would generate $1.5 billion in new funds for Ohio highways from bonds issued by the Ohio Turnpike Commission, and backed by future toll revenues. Up to an additional $1.5 billion could be generated from matching local and federal funds totaling a combined nearly $3 billion for Ohio's major highway construction projects.
"This plan just makes sense as we continue Ohio's economic resurgence, grow jobs and make our state prosperous once again," said Kasich. "Billions of dollars in new highway funds further strengthens Ohio's jobs-friendly climate and keeps our state moving by delivering more projects faster."
ODOT's director says bonding against future Turnpike revenue will generate enough money to eliminate the budget deficit for highways in Ohio.
"Combined with ODOT's work to reduce our cost of doing business and improve service to the state's motoring public, this plan puts the resources we need into our major construction budget," explained Wray.
Details of the Ohio Jobs and Transportation Plan include:
- No longterm, private lease.
- A continued public, independent Turnpike with expanded authority and renamed the "Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission."
- More than 90 percent of new bond money will go directly to northern Ohio highway projects, including the Turnpike.
- Rebuilding the Ohio Turnpike will happen sooner than planned. Completion could occur in 25 years, as opposed to 40.
- Tolls for local trips paid with an EZ Pass are frozen for 10 years for drivers making trips of 30 miles or less.
- All other toll rates are capped at inflation, which is significantly less than historic toll increases.
- No Turnpike employee layoffs are anticipated.
Kasich estimates this will result in around 65,000 construction-related jobs. After listening to concerns, he believes this plan is a bold step to ignite Ohio's economy.
"By doing it this way, we can respond to people's concerns, and yet, still have the outcome that we desire. If we lease this, we probably would get more money, potentially, but we'd be paying a premium of losing control," said Kasich.
Kasich hopes to put the proposal through legislature quickly.
"Maintaining public control and an independent Turnpike Commission helps keep tolls low and workers on the job," said Hodges. "Plus, with this new plan, we can get to work rebuilding the entire Turnpike decades sooner than we once had planned."
ODOT has cut the agency's $1.6 billion highway budget deficit by $400 million, due to new savings and operational efficiencies, but more money and innovation is needed. Money generated from the Ohio Jobs and Transportation Plan will help fill budget deficit without raising taxes that would eliminate jobs.
The launch of the new plan concludes a year-long study of options for better using the revenue generated by the Ohio Turnpike.
The Ohio Trucking Association believes Kasich has chosen the best option for all travelers in the state.
"I'm gratified that as a trade association representing a major user of the Turnpike, we have had many opportunities to voice our concerns with the Ohio Turnpike Commission, ODOT, KPMG, and the Governor's Office," said OTA president Larry Davis. "They listened to us and that means a lot."
The association, which represents more than 900 trucking and supplier companies throughout the state, believes the Ohio Turnpike is too valuable of an asset to give to an outside company for lease or purchase.
"We have a topnotch Turnpike now with a stable and fairly predictable funding source," explained Davis. "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 who may not have the best interests of efficient transportation in mind."
Supporters applaud efforts to keep the Turnpike in public hands and affordable for all.
"This plan not only keeps tolls low for the local drivers, but assures that trucking firms can use the Turnpike, will continue to be able to afford that," said State Rep. Lynn Wachtmann.
Among those supporting the proposal are Toledo Mayor Mike Bell and the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority.
"The idea of it going private, that was really the biggest concern addressed. He came up with a unique way to still address the funding issue and still keep it within the government system," said Bell.
Some local Democrats are voicing their opposition to Kasich's plan, calling it "pure politics."
Lucas County Treasurer Wade Kapszukiewicz says without any guarantee of where the new money can be spent, the proposal amounts to creating a political slush fund for the governor to earmark money to highway projects in Republican-friendly areas.
"This corridor that's going to see money taken away from it and distributed elsewhere, is a part of the state the governor knows is not a part of the state that's favorable to him politically," said Kapszukiewicz.
State Rep. Teresa Fedor agrees.
"The Turnpike is the economic pipeline of northern Ohio and its assets should not be taken from northern Ohio," said Fedor. "But it is not just northern Ohioans who are affected; the governor's plan does not benefit other Ohioans, either, because it is not a fiscally sound plan. In exchange for a smoothly operating Turnpike, the governor is giving us a lump of coal."
State Senator Edna Brown is among those who disapprove.
"Although I was happy to hear that the governor has chosen not to privatize this vital state asset, his plan still has the potential to severely undermine the Turnpike's ability to meet the needs of the communities that depend on it," said Brown. "Increasing toll rates limits accessibility, which will have a negative economic impact on motorists, as well as businesses. Additionally, diverting funding from the Turnpike will not only endanger the upkeep of the road, it will also take resources out of the local economy and disperse them across the state. I hope that the governor will keep his constituents from northwest Ohio in mind before he moves forward with this plan to drastically change a system that has been successful for over 55 years."
State Rep. Mike Ashford says he fully expects Kasich to strong-arm Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly to approve his plan without much debate.