Turnpike tolls could increase with proposed privatization plan

Alison Ritchie

Many Kent State students will travel along the Ohio Turnpike to get home for the holidays. But that same roadway has become the topic of heated debate across the state, as Gov. John Kasich’s proposal to privatize the turnpike moves forward.

Democratic State Rep. Kathleen Clyde of Kent hosted a town hall meeting Monday night at the Reed Memorial Library in Ravenna to discuss the governor’s plan.

Approximately 60 people gathered in the library’s meeting room to voice concerns and ask questions to a panel that included fellow Democratic State Representatives Ronald Gerberry and Robert Hagan, Portage County Engineer Mickey Marozzi and Richard Hodges, the Ohio Turnpike Commission executive director.

“For those of us who grew up around it, we take great pride in the Ohio Turnpike,” said Gerberry. “I have grave concerns.”

The proposal to lease the 241-mile toll road was included in Ohio’s annual budget. Gov. Kasich has argued that a lease could generate at least $3 billion dollars that is necessary to fund crucial infrastructure projects around the state.

But opponents of the plan argue that it will lead to higher tolls and poor road maintenance. Marozzi said he’s concerned about the structural damage state roads might face, if higher tolls force more commuters off the turnpike.

“That additional truck traffic is not what these roads have been designed for,” Marozzi said.

The turnpike tolls are already set to increase about 10 percent Jan. 1.

Hodges, who has been director of the Ohio Turnpike Commission for four weeks, said he has not determined whether he supports a leasing option.

“This is not about finding a solution tonight or me arguing one way or the other because I’m not prepared to do that,” he said.

Hodges said he is waiting to make a decision until the state has explored its options.

The Ohio Department of Transportation has chosen KPMG LLP, a New York-based audit and financial firm, to conduct a $1.5 million study to research the options surrounding the future of the Ohio Turnpike. In October, the Federal Highway Administration revoked its funding for the study, after several Northeast Ohio Democrats, including Congressman Tim Ryan, sent a letter that claimed it was a misuse of funds. The Ohio Department of Transportation adjusted its proposal and resubmitted its request for funding, which the agency approved.

Gerberry said he’s skeptical that the outcome of the study will make a difference.

“The only reason we’re having this study is to give cover to the administration,” Gerberry said.

But Hodges said leasing is not the only idea being considered.

“I welcome the study that’s going on,” he said. “Although leasing is an option, it’s only one option. We have an issue with funding our infrastructure. If the turnpike can be a solution to that, I welcome that.”

Hodges said the study would also look into expanding the bonding authority of the turnpike, exploring the management structure and keeping things the way they are.

At the meeting, several residents voiced their concerns about the road’s future, including John Zizka, who used to drive on the turnpike about five days a week for nearly 12 years.

“For the most part, when no other roads in Ohio were passable, when you got on the Ohio turnpike you could get to your destination. It’s the best-maintained highway in the state by far,” he said.

Like many in the audience, Zizka said he opposes the privatization of public assets.

“You’re taking from the people and handing it over to private and sometimes out of state and foreign corporations,” said Zizka. “We’re losing control. If you give a 75-year lease or a 99-year lease, that’s our lifetime. We’ll never be able to regain control of those assets during our lifetime.”

Zizka said the governor should raise taxes and quit giving tax cuts to corporations, in order to deal with the state’s budget crisis.

But Ohio is not the first state to consider this type of proposal. In 2006, Indiana agreed to a 75-year lease of its turnpike for $3.8 billion dollars to a Spanish-Australian company. The state has since seen its tolls nearly double.

Gerberry has introduced a bill that would block the sale of the turnpike, but it has yet to make progress through the Ohio General Assembly.

KPMG is expected to complete its study in July, when it will make a final recommendation to the state.

Contact Alison Ritchie at [email protected].