State Senate passes highway bill

Jim Provance

COLUMBUS — The Ohio Senate Wednesday gave a green light to 70 mph rural interstates, but the light quickly turned yellow when the bill returned to the House.

The House punted the bill to a joint conference committee in hopes of striking a compromise on a two-year transportation bill capable of passing both chambers next week.

In addition to raising the speed limit, the dispute includes the Senate’s attempts to etch into stone at least some of Gov. John Kasich’s assurances that his plan to borrow $1.5 billion against the Ohio Turnpike would not result in a mass exodus of dollars from northern Ohio to highway and bridge construction in other parts of the state.

The transportation budget must reach Mr. Kasich’s desk by the end of the month.

“This is a jobs bill, perhaps the largest one you will have an opportunity to vote for this General Assembly,” Sen. Gayle Manning (R., North Ridgeville), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, told her colleagues. She noted that some 65,000 construction-related jobs are expected to be created from bridge and highway projects fueled by $3 billion in new spending — the $1.5 billion in turnpike bonds plus a matching amount of federal and local dollars.

The Senate voted 27-6 to approve House Bill 51 with all six negative votes coming from Democrats who argued the bill doesn’t protect turnpike drivers enough or provide enough funding for mass transit.

All of northwest Ohio’s senators — Edna Brown (D., Toledo), Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), Cliff Hite (R., Findlay), and David Burke (R., Marysville) — voted “yes.”

The bill would restore Ohio’s pre-1974 speed limit of 70 mph on nonurban interstates. The maximum would be set at 65 mph on urban outer beltways and 55 on roads inside those beltways and on congested highways.

All of Ohio’s neighbors are already at 70 mph with the exception of Pennsylvania at 65 mph. The new 70 mph would likely apply to nearly all 34 miles of I-75 through Wood County, which is fine with Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn.

“I have no problem with it,” he said. “The highway is designed to handle those speeds.”

Much of the speed enforcement on the highway is left to the Ohio Highway Patrol, but the sheriff’s office does respond to accident calls.

“I read that people said it would be more like 80, but I don’t think the flow is going to do that. If the highway patrol is strict, drivers will learn quickly what the cap is,” Mr. Wasylyshyn said.

The House avoided writing Mr. Kasich’s turnpike promises into the bill, citing concerns that restrictions on the turnpike’s ability to raise revenue could lead to higher interest rates on the bonds.

The Senate bill, however, would:

• Guarantee 90 percent of the borrowed funds would be spent within 75 miles of the toll road corridor.

• Freeze for 10 years turnpike tolls paid by E-ZPass users traveling fewer than 30 miles.

• Allow Ohioans who use E-ZPass and travel more than 30 miles to claim a corresponding income tax credit if tolls should climb faster than the annual rate of inflation.

The changes helped to bring four Democrats on board in the Republican-controlled chamber. Other lawmakers, however, questioned why the chamber bent over backwards for northern Ohio.

“Until we start recognizing Ohio assets for what they are, that is Ohio assets, and until we start using them for the good of the whole state and not fighting over them for the satisfaction of some regional hunger or regional interests, we are going to remain a Balkanized state, denying itself the opportunity to maximize its greatness from border to border and from river to lake,” Sen. John Eklund (R., Chardon) said.

Mr. Gardner said the Department of Transportation has told him northern Ohio could have expected $680 million in road and bridge construction projects by 2027 if no changes were made in the current transportation-funding system. With the turnpike borrowing, the department said $1.8 billion could be spent by 2019.

Contact Jim Provance at: [email protected], or 614-221-0496.