Columbus -- A lawmaker panel has given initial approval to language that would require 90 percent of bonding proceeds leveraged from the Ohio Turnpike to be used for projects within 75 miles to the state's lone toll road.
Toll rates also would be frozen for shorter turnpike trips, and speed limits on other Ohio highways would be increased to 70 mph.
Those were among the amendments accepted by the Senate's transportation committee March 11 as part of substitute legislation combining separate bills that outline spending for the Ohio Department of Transportation and Gov. John Kasich's turnpike plans.
The new House Bill 51 was unanimously accepted for review by the committee's Republican and Democratic members. A floor vote is expected by midweek. A conference committee of lawmakers from the Senate and House will negotiate a final bill.
"The citizens of northern Ohio have said all along that we believe that if the program is going to be based on revenues generated by the turnpike that the vast majority of the funds should be utilized for transportation needs in northern Ohio," Sen. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, said after the March 11 committee session. "That's what the amendment does. We've made an important step forward today to support northern Ohio."
Sen. Capri Cafaro, D-Hubbard, added, "I'm very, very pleased that we've managed to do this in a way that is bipartisan and constructive. Many of us, even though we come from different sides of the aisle, do share the commitment to the turnpike and those that use it and those that pay its tolls. ... I think that this is a very, very good step in the right direction ... that protects the interests of northern Ohio ...."
A spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation directed questions about the amendments to the governor's office. A Kasich spokesman declined comment.
"The House and Senate continue to debate the transportation bill, and we're following those discussions closely, but we don't do our negotiating through the media," Rob Nichols said in a released statement.
The transportation budget outlines more than $7 billion in spending authority for ODOT and several other agencies, including the Ohio Department of Public Safety.
The substitute legislation also solidifies a plan outlined by Kasich that calls for the state to borrow about $1.5 billion, via bonding against future tolls. And supporters hope to leverage another $1.5 billion in local and federal funding for road and bridge projects statewide.
The administration has said that more than 90 percent of new bond money would go to roadwork in the northern third of the state. Tolls would be frozen for regular users of the turnpike who travel shorter distances.
Those issues have been the focus of much debate during legislative deliberations.
The Ohio House moved the transportation budget and turnpike plan as separate legislation, without amendments offered by Democrats that would have ensured the majority of funding was spent north of U.S. Route 30 and that tolls were frozen for certain commuters.
But the Ohio Senate recombined the two bills and added language requiring most of the turnpike bonding to be spent in northern Ohio and freezing tolls over the next decade for trips of 30 miles or less when tolls are paid electronically.
Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.