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Economy and Business

Ohio transportation officials are not sold on the idea of leasing turnpike
Some critics of the idea are questioning what the quality of the turnpike will be if this occurs

Karen Kasler
In The Region:

The Ohio Department of Transportation trucked in a speaker from next door in Indiana, to talk about how Indiana’s lease of its turnpike is paying off for that state. But as Statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler reports, critics of the lease idea still aren’t ready to say “go”.

Kasler on the toll road lease

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Kasler on the toll road lease short version

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Several hundred engineers, county officials and others in the transportation officials from around the state at a conference in Columbus got a briefing not on Ohio’s turnpike status, but on how the leasing of the toll road in Indiana is going.

“The lease of the Indiana toll road in 2006 is good for Indiana, and it’s positioned us for strong economic performance.”

Michael Cline is a commissioner with the Indiana Department of Transportation.

“Our toll road is currently being maintained and operated very well by our concession company. And I’ll note that many people that were originally skeptical of the transaction have come around to and acknowledged that, you know, this was a good deal for Indiana.”

Cline addressed some issues that he called “myths” - for instance, that the toll road isn’t being maintained. He says $385 million has been spent on the road in the last six years. And he called reports that toll rates have doubled since 2006 another myth. His chart showed the toll for the length of the turnpike was the same from 1985 to 2006 – $4.65. People with electronic toll passes – who comprise about 70% of drivers on that toll road – still pay that same rate, and will because of a rate freeze till 2016. But for those without the electronic passes, the toll is now at $9.40 – more than twice the rate before the lease. There were some attendees who quietly suggested if this was a sales pitch for leasing the Ohio Turnpike, they weren’t totally sold. One person not quietly saying it is Mahoning County Commissioner Anthony Traficanti.

“The Indiana toll road is a disaster.”

Traficanti owns a trucking company, and says he’s heard horror stories about maintenance problems on the Indiana toll road. And he doesn’t like to think about those stories playing out in Ohio.

“We have enough accidents now and God forbid if somebody would take that over, whoever that entity would be, they’re not held to the same standards as a turnpike that’s basically maintained through the state government. There are different things and different standards that are held up that we have to follow by law, so I really believe the quality would not be there.”

ODOT director Jerry Wray says there are options for the turnpike – ODOT could make no changes, it could take over the turnpike from the Turnpike Commission and sell bonds, or it could lease the turnpike to a concessionaire, as Indiana has done. But Wray says the state’s plans will be revealed soon.

“We’re going to have, our study from KPMG will be complete about the second week of November. And based on that, we’re going to make a decision and have a proposal for the general assembly right after the first of the year.”

And Wray says no one should assume that because Cline was brought to Columbus to talk about Indiana’s setup, that means Ohio will be doing the same thing. But back in Mahoning County, Anthony Traficanti is still worried.

“I would certainly want to hope that we have input as to whatever the outcome of this is going to be. But once it’s in the legislature, I don’t know if hearings will be held. I don’t know how that will play out politically.”

Wray says he’s come to northeast Ohio more than 80 times to talk to local officials and citizens’ groups about their turnpike concerns, and feels he’s been able to tip some who were negative on a lease into a neutral position. Traficanti says he hasn’t met with Wray – but would welcome a meeting – but remains firmly opposed to any leasing of the turnpike to an outside operator.

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