Lawmaker: Kasich won't lease turnpike

JOHN SEEWER JULIE CARR SMYTH AP Statehouse Correspondent Published:

COLUMBUS (AP) -- Ohio Gov. John Kasich plans to propose raising $1.5 billion for highway projects with Ohio Turnpike bonds while preserving the toll way as a public entity, according to state lawmakers briefed Wednesday night on the plan.

The proposal means the Ohio Turnpike won't be sold or leased to a private operator -- an option that drew complaints about the possibility of higher tolls and job losses for those who work on the 241-mile toll road that cuts across northern Ohio.

State. Rep. Lynn Wachtmann, R-Napoleon, was among those briefed by phone by the Kasich team on the proposal.

The teleconference came ahead of a series of announcements Kasich has planned beginning today in Toledo.

Wachtmann said the plan preserves the Ohio Turnpike Commission and retains workers' jobs. The first $1 billion from bonds would come right away, the rest in four years.

"Most of the people in Ohio want to see the turnpike administration stay the way it is," Wachtmann said. "I think the governor is to be commended."

The governor's latest plan calls for northern Ohio road projects to get priority treatment, a move necessary to obtain buy-in from the communities that have long paid tolls for using the roadway as well as relying on it for jobs.

Kasich is expected to ask for modest toll increases for vehicles traversing the state, while freezing rates for a decade for those making turnpike trips of less than 30 miles.

Wachtmann said toll increases would be minimal, in order to keep truck traffic from leaving the turnpike for local roads.

"I don't think anybody can possibly claim that what the governor is doing is not good for Ohio, because they went through a very thorough process," he said.

Spokesmen for the governor, the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Office of Budget and Management all declined to provide details of the plan earlier today.

Kasich at first appeared to be intent on leasing or selling the road, but local leaders from counties and cities along the along the turnpike objected loudly, saying they feared higher tolls that would drive more traffic onto routes that meander through small towns.

Tolls have nearly doubled since investors took over the Indiana Toll Road.

In Ohio, it's now $16.50 for cars making a full trip on the turnpike, which expects to collect a $250 million from motorists this year.

Kasich has maintained that the turnpike is an underutilized asset that can bring more revenue at a time when the state is getting ready to roll out a new two-year budget.

He initially said the state could get at least $2.5 billion in leasing it and has said the money would pay for work on roads, bridges and harbors without raising taxes.

A five-county planning body in northeast Ohio argued that most of the money should to go toward projects in northern Ohio, where the turnpike money is generated. It also sought to make sure there are guarantees that a private operator will keep up with highway maintenance.

The concern is that if the road becomes too costly or goes downhill, businesses that rely on the route might relocate or it will be tougher to attract new companies.

Another worry is that truck traffic will move to secondary roads and clog up the small towns along the way. That's what happened when an 82 percent rate increase took full effect in 1999. The state responded by lowering tolls and increasing speeds for truckers.

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