Hands off the Ohio Turnpike

Hands off the Ohio Turnpike

The question of privatizing the Ohio Turnpike wasn’t even an issue in the 2010 gubernatorial race between Incumbent Ted Strickland, a Democrat, and Republican challenger John Kasich. The question was raised in July while Kasich was campaigning with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who sold a 75-year lease on the 157-mile Indiana turnpike to a consortium of foreign investors for $3.8 billion. Both Kasich and Strickland declared that they had no intention of privatizing the turnpike.

That was then; this is now. And now that he’s been elected, Kasich is acknowledging that his staff is looking at leasing Ohio’s 241-mile turnpike to private interests. He stipulates that the timing might not be right, but “we definitely haven’t taken it off the table.”

Well, it should be taken off the table, especially by a self-described conservative, because selling (or leasing, or rebranding) a public asset such as the Ohio Turnpike is one of the least conservative things any politician could do.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Putting operation of the turnpike into private hands in exchange for an up-front payment of millions of dollars that will be used to balance the budget or finance other capital improvement projects is about as close as it gets to theft of a public asset.

The turnpike was built with bonds that were repaid over decades by users of the road exclusively, not through general tax revenue. Some of the land on which the road was built was taken by the government through eminent domain.

Taking such an asset and turning its operation over to a for-profit corporation in order to fill a budget hole is at best irresponsible.

The turnpike is a valuable asset for economic development and it has historically been well managed. As the Turnpike Commission’s Web site notes, since the toll road opened in 1955, the Consumer Price Index has increased more than 6.5 times, but Ohio Turnpike tolls for passenger cars increased by less than 2.5 times.

Would any lease the state negotiated contain a provision that the increase in tolls over the next half century would be kept to less than half the CPI? Obviously the lease would not assure that all of the tolls would go toward upkeep and improvement of the road, since the new operators would be duty bound to provide a profit for their investors.

Selling assets such as the turnpike are get-rich-quick schemes for the seller and get-rich-over-time propositions for the buyer. The users are the losers.

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