As a growing industrial region in the country, Ohio needs a quality transportation system.
The need to maintain the region’s highway system and efficiently move goods through it is evident every day as we see unprecedented growth and investment because of the Utica shale development and other growing industries in Eastern Ohio and the Mahoning Valley.
The Ohio Turnpike is an important part of that system, and so are the other main highways and bridges serving our region.
The economic momentum in Ohio and the Mahoning Valley over the last few years can only be sustained if we recognize that the competition to keep existing businesses and attract new ones grows more intense every day. To win those battles requires us to be forward thinking as we address major problems.
Ohio faced a $1.6-billion highway funding shortfall earlier this year that forced the state to delay major projects, including the Interstate 80 expansion project in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
The Kasich administration’s plan to deal with the road and bridge funding dilemma is a solid step forward for Northeast Ohio because it ensures the Ohio Turnpike will remain a quality roadway for decades to come, and it will help in obtaining the necessary dollars to move the Valley’s priority infrastructure projects forward.
This is particularly important given the amount of investment needed on the turnpike. While many of us believe the turnpike is a first-class facility, the reality is that significant capital improvement is needed across the 50-plus-year-old roadway’s 241 miles. ODOT is prepared to ensure the necessary capital investments to make the improvements now and into the future.
Most of us appreciate the role the turnpike has played in the region’s economic development. The Youngstown-Warren area sits at the crossroads of major highways, including the turnpike, and is accessible within a day’s drive of half the population of the U.S.
There was a good deal of apprehension when Gov. John Kasich said last year that he would consider leasing the turnpike to generate revenue for infrastructure projects. Instead, the governor recently announced that Ohio would be moving forward with an innovative concept designed to provide much-needed funds for infrastructure projects while maintaining ownership of the turnpike.
The governor said at the beginning of a 10-month study by experts about options for the turnpike that he had no preconceived notions about the best way to proceed — he just wanted the facts.
The governor has kept his word. And after an analysis of alternatives, he and his team have concluded that Ohio should retain control over the turnpike and take advantage of a bond program to raise funds to support important projects that are being delayed because of a lack of funding.
I believe the Mahoning Valley will benefit in several ways from Kasich’s plan.
Our priority road project for the Valley — the multimillion-dollar lane expansion of I-80 in Mahoning and Trumbull counties — will now be completed in the next few years. We anticipate other local projects to be funded earlier than planned as well.
The turnpike, whose busiest interchange across the state is in the Valley, will be significantly upgraded sooner than expected and local users will see tolls frozen for 10 years. I believe the governor listened to the concerns voiced about the turnpike and responded in a very fair and sound manner.
We in the business community have long asked state and local government to take innovative and forward-looking steps to reform itself and make it more efficient and effective.
I believe the turnpike plan is a major step forward in maintaining and improving our infrastructure, one that will enhance Ohio’s reputation as one of the best states in which to do business.
Tom Humphries is president and CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber.