John Kasich delivered a political masterstroke when he unveiled his plan to leverage the Ohio Turnpike, generating an additional $1.5 billion for highway and bridge construction. The governor’s critics expected a plan to privatize, or lease, the 241-mile roadway across the northern tier of the state. When Kasich took another direction, essentially borrow and spend, they were left flat-footed, even reeling in response.
That was a month ago, allowing time to mull the turnpike proposal, to get beyond the political theater. There still is much to recommend in the plan. The state needs the money to shore up aging infrastructure. Issue bonds against the steady flow of toll revenue, and the state can move much more quickly to address priorities. In addition, this is an advantageous time for the state to borrow, interest rates at such low levels.
In typical fashion, the governor gushed about his administration’s idea: “Are you kidding me? Why didn’t somebody not do this about 25 years ago? You lower tolls. You fix the turnpike. You bring projects forward [across the state], and you create jobs.” Actually, the concept was floated in the Strickland years, and put aside.
And fair questions and concerns have surfaced in recent weeks about this latest version. Take the assertion about “lower tolls.” Not really. Under the proposal, those people using an EZ Pass or traveling fewer than 30 miles would escape toll increases for 10 years. The remaining users would face tolls rising at the rate of inflation.
Left open is the possibility of Ohioans in the north paying higher tolls, along with the state gas tax, and the money routed elsewhere in the state, where users would not pay more to meet local transportation needs.
The governor has attempted to be reassuring, pledging that “more than 90 percent” of the bond revenues would be plowed into roads and bridges in the northern part of the state. Yet skepticism lingers, many in the north troubled about the likelihood of bearing a larger share of the cost without sufficient local investment to show.
Democrats and others have jabbed the governor for relying on “onetime money” and evading the state’s debt limit. These items are less worrisome due to the stream of toll revenue supporting the borrowing. What they do highlight is the convolution, the governor, again, making things more complicated, as he has done, for instance, through the creation of JobsOhio.
In this case, what will be the relationship between the Ohio Turnpike Commission and the state Department of Transportation? They are joined to a degree. How will that work?
One defender of the governor’s plan applauded the choice of tolls over taxes. In truth, there is no difference, the gas tax and the turnpike tolls amounting to user fees. Yet for the governor, the distinction is huge, reflecting his determination not to raise anything that carries the word “tax” and results in added revenues.
How much simpler and more fair to increase the gas tax, at 28 cents in Ohio, or 2 cents below the national average. To be sure, the world has changed, cars more fuel-efficient, but things aren’t so different that something as straightforward as the gas tax should be treated as antiquated. Raise the needed revenue that way, and the turnpike would remain well-run while Ohioans would contribute directly and equally to their transportation needs.