Hearings began Wednesday on the Kasich administration proposal to borrow against future Turnpike tolls to finance transportation projects around the state. Those hearings, and the bill which was released Tuesday, make clear that there are serious deficiencies in the details of the proposal when compared to the promises made by Gov. John Kasich in December.
When announcing his plans for the Turnpike, Kasich assured northern Ohioans that their tolls would not go up, that no layoffs would occur and that 90% of the proceeds of the borrowing against future toll revenue would be spent in northern Ohio.
Unfortunately, the language in House Bill 38 contains no such requirements.
The bill contains no language requiring funds be spent in northern Ohio. Instead it merely requires that projects have an “economic or transportation benefit” to the Turnpike. In yesterday’s committee hearing, the Turnpike Director Richard Hodges said this could mean roadways that connect Dayton or Columbus to the Turnpike, neither of which is located primarily in Northern Ohio. ODOT Director Jerry Wray went further, saying it would be “foolish” to create a quota or in any way dedicate those funds to a specific part of the state.
HB 38 preserves broad authority for the Turnpike Commission (to be renamed the “Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission”) to increase tolls without limit, and contains no language ensuring that tolls on local trips would not go up. In this case, officials are not explicitly backtracking on the Governor’s promises as they are with dedicating money to Northern Ohio, but there are no protections in the proposed law to ensure they make good on their word.
Finally, the bill contains language that would allow the Commission to implement additional electronic tolling if they see fit, and authorize them to use administrative means to enforce toll violations. In other words, toll collection on the Turnpike could be entirely automated – collecting tolls from cars with EZ-Pass and photo enforcement (mailing an invoice to a vehicle owner) or those without one. Are assurances that no layoffs are planned going to hold up?
The big question is whether northern Ohio legislators – from either party – will vote to authorize an unprecedented change in law to allow money from Turnpike tolls to be spent in other parts of the state without assurances – in law – that promises made will be kept.