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Government and Politics

No support for Ohio Turnpike leasing option at Elyria hearing
Fears of degraded toll road fuel concerns over private takeover

Kevin Niedermier
Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald addresses the audience at Tuesday's public hearing in Elyria on a possible lease of the Ohio Turnpike. He spearheaded the hearing because he believes Gov. John Kasich is pushing a lease deal through without giving the public a say.
Courtesy of Kevin Niedermier
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In The Region:

A group of northern Ohio officials is giving the public a chance to speak out on whether the state should lease its turnpike to a private company. And so far, the answer is no. WKSU’s Kevin Niedermier reports on a meeting held in Elyria Tuesday evening. It was the first of 3 organized by Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald.

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Ohio is looking for ways to help fund much needed transportation projects across the state.Options being studied are handing the toll road over to the Ohio Department of Transportation and using tolls to fund other projects, leaving it as it is, or leasing it out. The lease scenario would include Billions of private dollars for infrastructure projects.The audience of about 60 people at the Elyria hearing included elected officials, current and former turnpike workers, and some concerned citizens, all opposed to the leasing option. Janet Stephanic-Brant of Elyria was a toll collector for 25 years before retiring in 2000.

“It makes too much money for somebody else to run it, let the state run it however they want to, but no sub leasing because they’ll skim the money off and cut corners.  All businesses do because they’re for profit, not for public welfare or safety. The turnpike is a huge asset for the area.”

Lorain County Commissioner Ted Kalo is one of the 13 northern Ohio county officials concerned about a private takeover.

“In Lorain County we manufacture a lot of goods and have a large agricultural that depends on the turnpike to move their goods, it’s the livelihood of our residents. So anything that affects the performance of that turnpike is a negative for Lorain County and the entire region. So we’re asking the state of Ohio to slow down. Selling major assets isn’t  like selling a building.” 

Lease opponent say Indiana example of problems      

A popular example of what could go wrong is the Indiana Turnpike, which most audience member say has gone downhill since that state leased to a private consortium. But Ohio Department of Transportation official Jim Riley says lease opponents have many misconceptions about what putting the toll road in private hands would mean. And he tried to dispel many of them.He says if the state opted for a lease, the Ohio State Highway Patrol would still police the 241 mile highway, and  that state contracts would include performance standards and toll policies. Riley says ODOT contracts out almost all major highway and bridge work to private companies, and the possible turnpike lease would be a larger version of that.

“All we’re talking about is lumping together a long term contract which include the lifecycle cost of that facility. If we turn it over to the private sector we’re looking at what the value of that would be. We’re just studying it, we truly, truly haven made a decision as to whether a private lease is better than a releveraged state controlled asset.”

The Ohio Turnpike Commission’s Executive Director Rick Hodges was at the meeting to answer questions. He’s not saying what direction the turnpike should take until after the state’s study is finished. But though the toll road is doing well now, he says the way it’s operated must change to keep up with needed repairs and improvements.

“We’re had the same business model at the turnpike for the last 60 years, and not too many businesses exist without reexamining its business model after that long. We aren’t supporting any particular option other than the fact that we recognize the turnpike, like any institution has to change with the times.”

Hodges says the study of the turnpike’s future direction should be completed by the end of the year. Meanwhile, two more public hearings on the issue are scheduled for Lucas County next week, and in Mahoning County sometime after that.                                 
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