The Ohio House of Representatives Thursday sent a bill to the Senate that generates revenue—through the newly renamed Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission— to pay for infrastructure projects related to public highways, advances the timetable for certain projects and is estimated to create tens of thousands of jobs in the process.
House Bill 51, which passed out of the Ohio House Finance and Appropriations Committee by an 18-13 vote, uses the Turnpike’s toll revenues to support the issuance of $1.5 billion in bonds that, when matched with local and federal funds, is expected to provide $3 billion for road and bridge projects to meet the needs of the state, with special emphasis on projects in northern Ohio, the Ohio House said today.
Earlier in the day the House approved and sent to the Senate a two-year, $7.1 billion Transportation Budget Bill.
Turnpike issues and concerns
In a 58-36 floor vote—where four Republicans voted with Minority Democrats to oppose the bill while two Cleveland-area Democrats defected to the winning GOP Majority—the long-awaited bill moves to the Senate.
At issue is the ability of the Ohio Turnpike Commission to borrow$1.5 billion against future tolls on top of $530 million in existing debt, a move that quadruples Ohio Turnpike debt. The creation of a $3 billion pool of funds is expected if matching amounts in federal and local funds flow as expected, but with sequestration ready to hit Ohio and other states combined with a slowdown in federal infrastructure spending as conservatives in Congress battle to cut government spending, uncertainty over future reliability about this formula is high.
Following the push-back Gov. Kasich got from officials in Turnpike counties, he promised his critics that 90 percent of that first $1.5 billion would be spent in northern Ohio counties. Moreover, tolls at current rates for EZ-Pass-using commuters traveling less than 30 miles are to be frozen for the next 10 years while an annual rate of inflation cap would be imposed on toll increases for all other vehicles.
Turnpike Plan critics say Gov. Kasich should write his promises into the bill, but the bill that moves to the Senate doesn't include that language. The Kasich administration has explained that including such language would affect bond rates.
In response to growing criticism from public officials and business interests in northern counties that the Turnpike bonded money will be used elsewhere in the state, House lawmakers showed they heard their concerns by requiring a nexus or connection to the Turnpike for related funds to be used, keeping the money in northern Ohio. Commission qualifying criteria will require that a project be reviewed and recommended through the Transportation Review and Advisory Council, which places needed projects into a list of tiers. A substantial portion of the projects currently listed are located in northern Ohio counties.
Additionally, the plan directs $70 million of the bond proceeds to speed up the replacement of the Turnpike’s base pavement, which includes portions of the original roadway which have not been repaired or repaved since they were completed nearly 60 years ago.
In a statement, Rep. Ross McGregor (R-Springfield), chairman of the House Finance and Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation said, "I am pleased to support this fiscally sound, balanced plan that will help the state move forward on critical infrastructure needs and, in turn, continue to help our already recovering economy in Ohio. While the requirement of a nexus to the Turnpike will naturally allocate the majority of the proceeds to northern Ohio, let there be no mistake, a rising tide lifts all boats. This is an Ohio plan that we all can be proud of regardless of what part of the state we call home."
While Ohio is just starting to use its Turnpike in nontraditional ways, other states have made the leap already. Some lawmakers, like Rep. Tom Letson, a Democrat from Warren, in Ohio's far northeast, is looking at Pennsylvania and Indiana and doesn't like what he sees. "Pennsylvania has overextended itself. They’re about to bankrupt [their turnpike], and Indiana hasn’t taken care of [its leased turnpike]. Theirs is garbage. Yes, garbage. ...," he told the Toledo Blade.
From Letson's political viewpoint, Gov. Kasich has a "checkbook with $1.9 billion in it, and he could write the cost of this $1.5 billion bond issue tomorrow, this afternoon if we could get a hold of him," Blade reporters wrote.
Another resident of a Turnpike County, Ohio House Speaker William G. Batchelder, who lives in Medina County, south of the Turnpike, underscored the importance good infrastructure plays in economics. "With infrastructure playing such an important role in Ohio’s economic progress, I’m very pleased to see a consensus reached that keeps the Ohio Turnpike in public control and provides the dollars we need to take care of our roadways." Batchelder said, adding that he knows firsthand how badly the funds are needed.
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