Which will Kasich choose: Pay for roads the old-fashioned way, or raid turnpike’s coffers

We’re on pins and needles wait- ing to see if Gov. John Kasich leaves the Ohio Turnpike to do what it has been doing so well for almost 60 years or whether he fundamentally changes one of America’s first superhighways into a cash cow. Actually, we’re just kidding about the pins and needles part. For as much as Kasich tries to maintain some aura of suspense about what he is going to do, his intentions are clear.

He doesn’t see the turnpike as a functioning engine of prosperity for the state’s northern tier. He sees it as an under-utilized asset that he can convert into quick cash. He can then spread the money around the state the way a sovereign hands out the spoils of war to his favorite vassals.

And this old fashioned political wheeling and dealing will be passed off to the gullible as conservative governance.

Even while he repeatedly says that the results of a $3.5 million study on the turnpike’s future that he commissioned won’t be released until the end of the month, Kasich appeared before the Ohio Contractors Association with a clear message. At one point he urged the contractors to “keep an open mind,” but virtually everything else he said made it clear that all he’s open to is cashing in the turnpike’s chips. The only thing the KPMG study is going to provide is one or more means toward that end.

“Why would we have an asset in our state that is under utilized, where value could be captured from that asset and it can be used to generate jobs and also the ability to do the infrastructure needs that we have in a state that’s within 600 miles of 60 percent of the country?” Kasich asked the contractors.

Why stop at the ’pike?

Frankly, the state has a lot of assets other than the turnpike that could be viewed in the same light. It has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in prisons that could be sold off to private investors. Oh, wait, Kasich already tried that with something well less than resounding success. But the state has thousands of acres of public land that it could sell. It has billions of dollars worth of universities. It has valuable real estate in downtown Columbus. Why not sell the Statehouse to a private investor and then pay rent? And what about the governor’s mansion that Kasich couldn’t be bothered to live in? The question almost answers itself. And then there’s the state’s real money maker, the Ohio Lottery. We bet Las Vegas gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson would be delighted to take that off the state’s hands.

Why, the under-utilized, under-capitalized assets of the state are legion.

Everybody knows that private companies can do things so much better than government — with the possible exception of that prison deal. Oh, and Indiana, where the state leased its turnpike to a consortium of foreign investors. In six years, tolls for cars have doubled and those for trucks have increased 2.5 times. Meanwhile, the state has already run through the lion’s share of the $3.8 billion it received in a 75-year lease deal. And while the outgoing governor basked in the glory of building new roads, the incoming governor will have to find the money to maintain them.

It isn’t free money

But whatever other arguments can be made for or against leasing or even further mortgaging the Ohio Turnpike, we believe one of the strongest is a decidedly old-fashioned one: the moral argument. The Ohio Turnpike was established as an independent entity that was supposed to pay its own way, and it has. The taxpayers of Ohio did not pay for the turnpike, the users did. Many of them are Ohioans, many aren’t. Appropriating an asset that was built by tolls paid over 57 years and using that money for the aggrandizement of the governor is wrong.

The turnpike commission has done Ohio proud. The turnpike has done and is doing what it was designed to do.

If Kasich is successful in leasing the turnpike, look for him and his successors to sell off other state assets in the name of smart monetization — until there’s little left to put on the block, or until the public realizes that selling the seed corn is a rotten idea.

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