After two years of speculation and a $3.4 million study, John Kasich settled Thursday on a fairly straighforward approach, opting to use the Ohio Turnpike to leverage funds for a $1.6 billion backlog of road projects. An expanded Ohio Turnpike Commission will raise tolls, using the money to back $1.5 billion in bonds for non-turnpike projects, with most of the work concentrated in Northern Ohio.
Much of the speculation had focused on privatizing the turnpike, leasing it to a private operator, the state getting a lump sum estimated to be in the billions. But strong opposition to that idea built up across the northern tier of the state, where the 241-mile roadway is a key transportation link.
The Kasich team estimates that an additional $1.5 billion will be generated through local and federal matches, the result a $3 billion pot of money available over the next six years to be spent in consultation with the Ohio Department of Transportation.
The goal is to use 90 percent of the money in Northern Ohio. Tellingly, though, the administration made clear that is not a hard figure. Still, if the commitment holds, it would free up other transportation dollars to speed up work for much-needed road projects, reducing the current 20-year time frame to six years. Additional money will be available to start on projects that now exist only on paper, again with a concentration in Northern Ohio. That list is more substantial, about $8 billion in work on the drawing boards.
The Turnpike Commission will function as it does currently, even getting some extra funds to expedite work on the turnpike itself. Tolls will be frozen for 10 years for local trips of 30 miles or less, with other tolls capped at the rate of inflation, or about 2.7 percent a year, less than past rate hikes.
The plan will require the legislature to expand the commission’s size and ease the statutory restriction barring the commission from spending money on projects beyond one mile of the roadway.
Kasich said that while a lease would have raised more money, people had “very legitimate” concerns about losing control, a surprising admission of real risk from a governor so committed to privatizing government. But if Kasich’s turnpike decision showed he has his ear to the ground, there was an even better approach that he might have considered: an increase in the state’s gasoline tax, which has gone from 22 cents to 28 cents per gallon the past decade.
Kasich remains adamantly against tax increases of any kind. Yet a task force in 2009 found that a 13-cent increase per gallon would create a revenue stream to meet the state’s needs. Caught between another commitment — to not raise taxes — and concerns over leasing, the governor wisely chose a middle way to fund the highways and bridges that keep Ohio moving.