We were, frankly, surprised by the scope of Gov. John Kasich’s proposal to use the Ohio Turnpike as collateral for raising more than $1 billion for highway construction projects, most of which would finance projects in Ohio’s northern tier.
Our fear had been that Kasich would pursue a long-term lease of the turnpike to private investors. That plan could have provided the state with a larger pool of cash, but at too high a cost. In the six years since Indiana leased its turnpike to a consortium of foreign investors, tolls for automobiles have doubled and tolls for trucks have more than doubled.
Kasich’s plan is not a lease, it is a mortgage. More importantly, it preserves the Turnpike Commission as an independent entity that will retain responsibility for oversight of operations.
Kasich’s plan is not perfect. At its heart, it is still a scheme that diverts some of the receipts from the toll road to unrelated uses. Specifically, a portion of the tolls will be used to retire a debt of about $1.5 billion that will be spent on road projects not directly tied to the turnpike.
The hidden tax
The state will be taxing people who use the turnpike — some of them Ohioans, many of them not — to pay for Ohio’s roads and bridges. The best that can be said for that is that governments do it all the time. “Sin taxes” take money from smokers and drinkers to pay for athletic facilities that the majority of those smokers and drinkers will never use, for instance. Turnpike customers will now be among those paying penance even though traveling on the turnpike violates no commandments that we know of.
Nonetheless, the governor’s proposal deserves serious consideration on both sides of the aisle. Its attributes may outweigh its faults.
It caps toll increases at the inflation rate, meaning that motorists will not see any Indiana-like explosion in costs. And pouring at least $1 billion into short-term road construction will provide a quick boost for the economy. Other projects over the years will contribute to long-term economic development.
However, in this day, local governments are going to be hard-pressed to come up with a local match for state and federal highway dollars.
And there is a potential for shifting money that the northern tier is entitled to from the state’s gasoline tax to southern counties on the grounds that the north is enjoying a windfall from the turnpike fund. It will be up to local senators and representatives to be vigilant.