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Ohio Turnpike Lease Plans Raises Toll Hike Worries

Fri July 22, 2011 - Midwest Edition

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) Leasing Ohio’s busy toll road that links the East Coast with the Midwest has the potential to bring billions of dollars to the cash-strapped state. It also could bring higher tolls and drive more traffic onto routes that meander through small towns, opponents say.

The governor wants to lease the Ohio Turnpike to a private operator, following the lead of a handful of states and cities that have pocketed cash for their toll roads in recent years. Governments strapped by the Great Recession also are turning to selling off and leasing office towers, warehouses and prisons.

“We can get a big chunk of money that can be used to improve our infrastructure in the state,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said July 1 during a news conference. “Indiana did it. Indiana made a lot of progress.”

Neighboring Indiana recently marked the five-year anniversary of its $3.8 billion lease of the Indiana Toll Road to foreign investors. The state has spent much of the money on highway projects and put $500 million into an investment fund for future road construction.

Chicago leased an 8-mi. highway for nearly $2 billion five years ago, and an Australian company bought a 99-year lease on Pocahontas Parkway in Virginia. But a plan to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike fell through in recent years, in part because of fierce opposition from state and federal lawmakers.

Ohio’s new budget allows the state to lease nearly all of Interstate 80, which carries about 50 million vehicles each year across northern Ohio from Pennsylvania to Indiana. It also gives the state’s legislature some control over any potential deals after concerns were raised about whether a new owner would take care of the highway.

Much of the resistance is being led by officials from Ohio counties along the 241-mi. turnpike, which is funded through tolls and the sale of gas and food at rest stops.

“It’s a terribly unfair deal for northern Ohioans who have largely paid for the turnpike over the years,” said Tim Brown, a commissioner in Wood County, just south of Toledo. “It’s no different than a tax increase for us.”

Among the main concerns is that tolls are almost certain to go up if a private operator takes over.

Tolls have nearly doubled since investors took over the Indiana Toll Road. A 10 percent increase took effect on July 1, bringing the price to cross the northern half of the state to $9 for most cars.

County officials in Ohio want to make sure there would be limits on future toll increases if the state’s toll road is leased. It’s now $15 for cars making a full trip. The turnpike collected a record $236 million from motorists last year.

By comparison, Pennsylvania charges $32 to travel all 357 mi. on its turnpike.

Kasich, a Republican, views the Ohio Turnpike as an asset that has potential to bring more revenue at a time when the state just completed a series of spending cuts to fill an estimated $6 billion budget hole.

He thinks 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.

No deals are in the works yet. Kasich officials have said they envision a 30-year lease with an initial payment and a piece of annual toll revenues.

Still, there are many more details to work out.

A five-county planning body in northeast Ohio wants most of the money to go toward projects in northern Ohio, where the turnpike money is generated. It also wants 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.

“There’s a cost to the communities that are along the turnpike,” said Stephen Hambley, a Medina County commissioner who heads the planning body in northeast Ohio. “We’ve been paying for it since the ’50s. We feel we’re a majority stockholder.”

That’s why state Sen. Mark Wagner, a Republican from Toledo, inserted a provision to Ohio’s state budget giving lawmakers oversight of any lease deals.

“We owe it to northern Ohio to do it in a responsible way,” he said.

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.

More toll hikes if the turnpike is leased will likely push a lot more tractor-trailers onto other roads, said Joe Jones, a long-haul truck driver from Charlotte, N.C.

He went out of his way to avoid the turnpike’s toll booths while hauling machinery from upstate New York to Chicago recently.

“It puts another 60 miles on the trip, but I hate paying tolls,” he said while refueling at a truck stop just outside Toledo.

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