Republicans support Kasich's Ohio turnpike plan, Democrats object

by MARC KOVAC | CAPITAL BUREAU CHIEF Published:

Columbus -- The Republican leaders of the Ohio House and Senate voiced support for Gov. John Kasich's plan to leverage funding for road and bridge projects from the Ohio Turnpike.

"I think it's very innovative," said outgoing Senate President Tom Niehaus, from New Richmond. "It allows the people in northern Ohio that depend on that turnpike for their economic vitality and their livelihood to continue to benefit from it."

Statehouse Democrats, meanwhile, voiced their objection to the proposal, calling it a hostile takeover and a shell game.

"This is a partisan plan to raid assets of the turnpike for political gain," said Rep. John Carney, a Democrat from Columbus. "… It's clear that this is a political ploy designed to create a re-election year slush fund so that he may go around the state and hand out things to folks who are in need."

Kasich unveiled the plan during stops in Toledo, Cleveland and Youngstown, capping months of speculation and a multi-million-dollar study on the pros and cons of different options.

The 241-mile route is Ohio's lone toll road, accommodating more than 50 million vehicles annually.

Kasich's plan would maintain state ownership of the turnpike, meaning no lease or sale to a private entity. The state would borrow about $1.5 billion, via bonding against tolls, and hope to leverage another $1.5 billion in local and federal funding for use in construction projects.

More than 90 percent of new bond money would go to roadwork in the northern third of the state.

"This plan just makes sense as we continue Ohio's economic resurgence, grow jobs and make our state prosperous once again," Kasich said in a released statement. "Billions of dollars in new highway funds further strengthens Ohio's jobs-friendly climate and keeps our state moving by delivering more projects faster."

Republican House Speaker Bill Batchelder, from Medina, said he hadn't had a chance to review the full details but that the governor's office worked to address issues different groups had.

"There are no employment losses as a result of this change," he said. "There will be a very significant amount of money available for construction, that's important. They also are making allowance for people … to travel on the turnpike if it's how they go to work and so forth … It certainly is a much better thing than was talked about initially."

Other groups also are supporting the plan, saying it is a better approach than selling or leasing the turnpike to private interests.

The "Ohio Turnpike is one of Ohio's most valuable public assets, built by the people and for the people," Tabitha Woodruff, an advocate at the Ohio Public Interest Research Group, said in a released statement. "We are glad that Gov. Kasich intends to retain public control and make use of the public's lower capital costs. This is a wiser, more sensible option than privatization."

The Ohio Trucking Association is backing the plan, calling it "the best one [of the possible scenarios discussed] for all travelers in the state."

"We have a top-notch turnpike now with a stable and fairly predictable funding source," Larry Davis, the group's president, said in a released statement. "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."

But others aren't so sure about the plan.

In a released statement, Cuyahoga County Executive and potential gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald, Lorain County Commissioner Ted Kalo, Mahoning County Commissioner John McNally and Erie County Commissioner Bill Monaghan, offered, "We are concerned about the amount of gas tax being diverted from Northern Ohio to pay for projects in other areas of the state; to divert money that is 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 added, "We would like to take time to evaluate fully the governor's proposal and the overall impact that this proposal will have on the roads and economy of northern Ohio."

Statehouse Democrats were more blunt in their initial analysis.

Rep. Kathleen Clyde, a Democrat from Kent whose district includes two turnpike exits, said the plan could "threaten not only the turnpike's quality but also result in layoffs, increased drive times and less reliability."

She added, "also jobs along the turnpike from service plazas to local communities could be threatened if we change the road from the current formula that works so well for northern Ohio."

Rep. Ron Gerberry, a Democrat from Austintown, said the turnpike is well run.

"Why, No. 1, are we trying to fix something that works? I guess the answer is because there's a pot of gold. … Leave it alone. ODOT has been trying to get their hands on the Ohio Turnpike for decades …"

Rep. Bob Hagan, a Democrat from Youngstown, added, "It's not broken, but this governor wants to fix it. I don't get it. …You can't take away what we have been using for 60 years. It's absolutely ridiculous. The governor's out of line."

Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.

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