John Kasich’s six-year, $3 billion transportation plan, which the governor announced this week, would put long-delayed road and bridge projects across Ohio in the fast lane, creating jobs, easing congestion and improving safety. Forty-one projects would move ahead, some as early as next year, the work erasing a $1.6 billion backlog and accelerating the pace of future construction.
That’s welcome news. In Akron, for example, an overdue $96.4 million upgrade of the Interstate 76/77 interchange at South Main Street and South Broadway is planned. The busy interchange is considered the most dangerous stretch of highway in Summit County. Work could begin in 2016.
Yet for all the pluses in the governor’s plan, it comes crowded with concerns. It is a borrow-and-spend proposition. The state will borrow against future revenues of the Ohio Turnpike, requiring toll increases of likely 2.7 percent for most users each year for a decade. Via a bond sale, the state hopes to make $1.5 billion available, the money targeted for the northern part of the state.
Precisely where the rest of the money will come from and where the turnpike money will be spent remain somewhat uncertain, triggering fears that turnpike users will end up shouldering an unfair burden and worries about proper maintenance on the turnpike itself. The governor and his team will tap the usual sources of highway money, state, local and federal, though these have proved inadequate in the past. They also pledge to continue being creative about generating funds.
More, the governor cannot act alone. Today, the Transportation Review Advisory Council, a bipartisan group that approves funding for major highway projects, will take up the plan. Projects involving turnpike money must then be reviewed by the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission, which will consider whether there is a connection, or “nexus,” to the turnpike.
A far less convoluted funding alternative has been available, the state’s gas tax, at 28 cents a gallon, 2 cents below the national average and unchanged for eight years. According to a 2009 study, a 13-cent increase would meet the state’s needs, the burden falling fairly across the entire state (not to mention encouraging fuel efficiency). Instead of borrow and spend, Ohio would apply the practice of pay-as-you-go for its road work.
Kasich had considered privatizing the turnpike, hoping for a lump sum in the billions. Keeping the turnpike under public control was preferable, but leveraging the asset by raising tolls and selling bonds is a complex undertaking, the details still being worked out and subject to layers of approval. Heading into his re-election bid next year, the governor can say he did not raise taxes. That’s true, though the point may be lost on turnpike users.