On Monday, Ohio House Democrats pounced on John Kasich’s plan to use tolls from the Ohio Turnpike to finance road projects across the state. They introduced amendments to hold the governor to his promises — to spend most of the money in Northern Ohio and limit toll increases. The House Finance & Appropriations Committee is expected to discuss the topic today.
The governor’s plan calls for addressing a $1.6 billion backlog of road projects by selling $1.5 billion in bonds backed by turnpike revenue. The administration estimates another $1.5 billion in local and federal matching funds will be generated. Unveiling the idea, Kasich pledged to spend 90 percent of the money in Northern Ohio, freeze rates for local trips by EZ Pass users for 10 years and cap toll increases at the rate of inflation.
Ideally, the turnpike would continue to function independently, with an increase in the gas tax funding road projects across Ohio, reducing the backlog. The governor opted for a far more convoluted approach, in the process opening himself to questions after the details he first promoted did not show up in the proposed legislation.
Jerry Wray, the director of the state Department of Transportation, now argues it would be “foolish to contrive some number or some goal” for spending the bond proceeds. Bond counsel advises against limits on toll increases, saying the bonds would be less attractive to investors.
Democrats, feeling politically vulnerable, fear a scheme to soak Northern Ohio, opening the way for a governor seeking re-election to pass out checks all over the state. If the turnpike money is too narrowly restricted in the north, they fear a diversion of gas tax revenue to the south.
It is up to the governor and his team to bring clarity to their conflicting statements. Having waffled about the goal of spending 90 percent of the money in the northern part of the state, the tentative line set at U.S. Route 30, and limiting toll increases, the governor has invited a bigger question: Were his pledges based on sound transportation policy-making or just easy talk?
Ohio’s roads and bridges are a crucial component of its economic development. To move forward with his idea for funding improvements, the governor still has much explaining to do.