By Peter H. Milliken
Democratic elected officials from Northeast Ohio gathered in Youngstown for the first in a series of news conferences in opposition to Gov. John Kasich’s proposal to privatize the Ohio Turnpike to generate revenue for the state.
The Democrats said the privatization proposal could result in higher tolls, a decline in turnpike maintenance and lower wages for turnpike workers.
“It is clear that the Ohio Turnpike is not an asset of the state of Ohio, but is an asset bought and paid for by northern Ohioans and other users of this northern Ohio superhighway,” said John A. McNally IV, chairman of the Mahoning County commissioners.
“The Ohio Turnpike is a tremendous asset. It is not an asset of the state of Ohio, though, to be bought and sold or leased,” he said Thursday afternoon.
The creation of the Ohio Turnpike Commission, which operates the road, was authorized in 1949 by the Ohio Legislature, and the road opened in 1955. The commission, not the state, issued more than $326 million in revenue bonds to fund its construction, McNally said.
“No state general-revenue funds have ever been appropriated by the state of Ohio to support the Ohio Turnpike,” McNally said. “The turnpike is funded by tolls, profits from concessions and other items sold in turnpike shops.”
If the sale or lease of the turnpike were put out to bid, state Rep. Ronald Gerberry of Austintown, D-59th, said there’d be no way to prevent a foreign corporation or government from owning or leasing the 241-mile-long toll road, which traverses Northern Ohio, including Trumbull and Mahoning counties. A Spanish company leases the Indiana toll road, he noted.
“What the governor is talking about is a 30-year lease. That was the last thing he said, so if it turns out being a bad idea, we have 30 years to suffer, and then, on the other hand, the road will be destroyed by then,” Gerberry said.
After their news conference Thursday in the county courthouse, the group moved on to another news conference in Cleveland, with similar media events scheduled soon at other locations further west along the turnpike.
Besides Gerberry and the three Mahoning commissioners, those attending were Cuyahoga County Executive Ed Fitzgerald, Summit County Executive Russell Pry, and Lorain County Commissioner Ted Kalo.
Fitzgerald said he’ll commit his planning and public works staff to a study of turnpike privatization in other states.
Steve Faulkner, press secretary for the Ohio Department of Transportation, said in an email to The Vindicator that “ODOT is currently in the process of ironing out details of a contract with KPMG to lead an opportunity analysis of the Ohio Turnpike.
“The analysis is expected to examine turnpike operations, roadway conditions and tolls, to name a few. Details of the analysis are expected later this year.”
KPMG is a nationally known audit and financial services firm based in New York.
“The proposed leasing of the state asset for short-term gain will only lead to long-term pain,” Kalo said, adding that the turnpike is “the best-maintained highway in the state.”
The nonpartisan Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study last year concluded that, in order for the Ohio Turnpike to be successful in the hands of a private company, the turnpike would have to increase its traffic volume “or significantly increase the tolls or decrease maintenance,” Pry said.
As to whether there’s significant political patronage at the turnpike, Fitzgerald said, “I think there’s patronage at the state level. I haven’t heard them talking about selling off the state government. I’m sure there’s patronage in every institution to some extent.”