Gov. John Kasich discussed his plan to borrow $1.5 billion, leveraging Ohio Turnpike tolls, during a Thursday event at Cerni Motors in Austintown.
By David Skolnick
Gov. John Kasich is proposing to raise about $3 billion to make improvements to the Ohio Turnpike and other nearby roads and bridges, almost all in the northern part of the state.
The proposal, unveiled Thursday, would allow the state to borrow $1.5 billion, leveraging turnpike tolls, with Kasich saying another $1.5 billion could be matched from federal and local funds.
The first $1 billion would be borrowed in 2013, he said.
Kasich, a Republican, made three stops Thursday in Ohio, including Cerni Motors in Austintown, located a few miles from the 241-mile turnpike, to discuss the proposal that needs approval of the state Legislature.
When asked by The Vindicator about the $3 billion, Kasich said it was a conservative figure and could be as high as $5 billion.
About 90 percent of the money raised would be used for projects on the turnpike or work done near the highway, which travels across the northern part of the state.
The plan would be done without leasing or selling the turnpike — something Kasich has considered for nearly two years — or without large increases in tolls.
Tolls would be frozen for 10 years for passenger vehicles traveling less than 30 miles on the turnpike with an EZ Pass, and toll hikes for longer trips and trucks would be capped at the rate of inflation, which is less than prior toll increases, including last year’s 10-percent jump.
Also, Kasich said he isn’t expecting any layoffs of the 1,000 turnpike workers.
But Ohio Democrats were quick to criticize Kasich’s plan.
The plan would use most of the money raised for work in the northern part of Ohio while programs in the southern portion of the state would have work done with money collected from the state’s gas tax.
State Rep. Ronald Gerberry of Austintown, D-59th, said the turnpike is the best “operated highway in the country” so why is Kasich “trying to fix something that works? I guess the answer is because there’s a pot of gold.”
The plan, Gerberry said, would allow Kasich to provide money to communities for road improvements as a way to help him get re-elected in 2014.
He called the plan “a shell game,” and contended the northern part of the state won’t see a benefit from this.
“What about my piece of the action for all my gas tax I send in now?” Gerberry asked.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern called the plan a “cocamamie idea,” and that Kasich will use the money for “a slush fund for the governor’s re-election bid.”
And U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, said the plan will jeopardize the future of “one of Ohio’s most reliable and best-maintained roads.”
“This is not the time to advance policies that will raise tolls and yet decrease funding for maintenance and infrastructure,” the congressman said. “What the governor wants will create a roadblock for Ohio’s economy and hurt Ohio families who rely on the turnpike for business and personal travel.”
Cleveland-area Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, D-11th, agreed. She and Ryan noted that the plan places the turnpike under the control of the Ohio Department of Transportation, enabling the state to reallocate maintenance and infrastructure funds away from Northern Ohio to fund projects around the state.
Currently, turnpike funds must be spent within a mile of the roadway.
In addition, they said, the plan is a concern for companies behind the economic rebound across the northern tier of the state, which use the roadway daily. The risk of higher taxes and decreased safety and maintenance on the turnpike will affect auto manufacturing, advanced engineering and shale gas development, and jeopardize the state’s ability to create economic development opportunities, they said.
When asked to refute the Democrats’ criticism, Kasich was dismissive.
“That’s politics, those are naysayers and I don’t pay attention to that,” he said.
Over the next six years, 65,000 jobs would be created, Kasich said.
Kasich and Jerry Wray, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, said this plan would move up projects that weren’t going to be funded for 20 to 25 years.
For example, an $80 million project on Interstate 80 between the Interstate 680 connector near state Route 46 in Austintown, going east to the state Route 11 split in Liberty, will start in 2015. It was slated to start in 2027.
The project, which will take two to three years to complete, would make that six-mile stretch three lanes instead of two, said Anthony M. Urankar, ODOT’s District 4 deputy director.
“If we don’t do it, tolls will go up higher than we’re proposing and projects won’t get done,” Kasich said of his plan. “...Sometimes politics gets in the way of their thinking.”
The Teamsters Local 436, which represents 688 turnpike employees, supports the plan. Also, several state organizations including the Ohio Trucking Association, the Ohio Contractors Association, and the Operating Engineers of Ohio praised Kasich for the proposal.