Editorial: Turnpike plan comes with toll

March 24, 2013

The Akron Beacon Journal

The $7.6 billion state transportation budget bill soon headed to the governor’s desk contains the remnants of promises he made. When the governor unveiled in December his plan to leverage the assets of the Ohio Turnpike to reap additional highway money, he pledged that 90 percent of the funds would remain in northern Ohio, or where the turnpike crosses the state. He also touted a 10-year freeze in tolls for drivers using E-ZPass and traveling 30 miles or less.

A question that has lingered is whether the governor’s commitments were mostly about the sales pitch or based on sound transportation policy. Now that state lawmakers have debated and engaged in the necessary give-and-take of legislating, the answer has become clear: The governor was selling, more than anything else.

Jerry Wray, the director of the state Department of Transportation, raised concerns about the 90 percent pledge. Bond counsel expressed doubts about the limits on tolls. In the end, the state Senate got its way, the bill containing a 90 percent guarantee and a toll freeze for passenger cars. Yet each provision permits ample wiggle room, allowing for another path if circumstances warrant.

That flexibility is how it should be, in large part because the governor has engineered a sweeping change. The legislation essentially ends the independence of the Ohio Turnpike, the 241-mile highway long well maintained and operated now becoming part of the state system, a partner of the transportation department. The proposed sale of $1.5 billion in bonds, borrowing against the revenues of the turnpike, will generate funds to accelerate investment in roadways across the state.

Lawmakers point proudly to language limiting turnpike money to roads having a “nexus” with the turnpike. Yet, as they say, money is fungible. William Batchelder, the House speaker, has all but admitted the slippery definition, suggesting at an earlier point that litigation would be the vehicle for arriving at a “working definition.”

With the bond sale, the foggy promises and definitions, the confusion about governance and authority — turnpike commission or transportation department — another question hovers: Why such a convoluted pursuit? If the state must invest more heavily in transportation, it could do so directly through pennies added to the gas tax, a simple user’s fee. The turnpike would remain as it is, or what is not broken wouldn’t get a fix.

In one area, a spirit of restraint did prevail. The legislation leaves for fuller study the idea of raising the weight limit for trucks on state highways from 80,000 pounds to 90,000 pounds. Better to wait for a federal study currently in the works. The change at the turnpike will go forward, much of the maneuvering designed to avoid a straight tax increase. Still, in the borrowing to come, many Ohioans will pay, some more than others.