Thursday, June 08, 2006

Ken Blackwell's Turnpike Folly

"Ayahtollah" J. Kenneth Blackwell has rescinded the signature policy proposal of his gubernatorial campaign -- the implementation of a constitutional amendment restricting the spending authority of all political agencies of the state -- thanks to his friends in the GOP leadership who helped ram a watered-down version of the so-called TEL through the state legislature, which also conveniently allowed J-Ken the ability to pull this highly unpopular amendment off the November ballot.

Now that the fervor over the TEL is subsiding, attention has shifted to another of J-Ken's policy proposals: the leasing of the 241-mile long Ohio Turnpike to a private operator, who would lease the turnpike from the state and operate it in exchange for a lump sum of cash. J-Ken is proposing to use this cash for redevelopment projects in depressed inner cities as well as traditionally poor Appalachian areas of the state. This obvious attempt to curry favor in areas where J-Ken is politically weak right now is a bad idea for at least three reasons.

But first, a brief history of the Ohio Turnpike. The Ohio Turnpike Commission was formed in 1949 in response to the runaway success of the Pennsylvania Turnpike which had opened in 1940. The OTC was initially charged with constructing five such turnpikes across Ohio: The present-day Ohio Turnpike was to be first, followed by another turnpike roughly paralleling today's I-71 but traveling northeast from Cleveland along the lakeshore to the PA border (as today's I-271 and I-90 do). The third turnpike was to be roughly parallel today's I-75, the fourth would parallel today's I-70, and the fifth would parallel US Route 30 through a large swath of north central Ohio.

Construction on the first turnpike began in the early 1950's. Construction was financed through the sale of toll bonds, which were to be repaid with toll revenue collected from travelers on the turnpike. The original Ohio Turnpike across northern Ohio was opened in 1955. In 1956, after the passage of the bill creating the Interstate Highway System, development on the other four Ohio Turnpikes was stopped. While plans for the Interstate system briefly called for an interstate to be built parallel to the turnpike, eventually the turnpike was incorporated into the Interstate system, carrying Interstates 80, 90, and 76 for portions of its length. Tolls on the original Turnpike were to cease when the bonds sold to finance its construction were repaid.

The last original bond was repaid in July of 1992. At this time, preparations began to convert the Turnpike into a publicly maintained road as originally called for by the Interstate highway plan. However, legislation was introduced calling for the Turnpike to remain a toll road, citing the need to expand the road to six lanes to accommodate heavy traffic. The bill passed the Ohio Senate by a 17-16 margin and was eventually passed into law.

Soon thereafter, a proposal to raise the tolls on the Turnpike by 82 percent in order to finance construction of a third lane from Toledo to Youngstown, as well as to renovate the service plazas and build additional interchanges, was enacted by the Turnpike Commission. This toll increase drove large numbers of heavy trucks off the Turnpike onto parallel semi-improved roads such as State Route 2, U.S. Route 20, and U.S. Route 422. Accidents increased and maintenance became more difficult as these side routes handled mainline truck traffic.

Under political pressure from affected communities, Gov. Taft put a finance plan in place to lower the tolls on the Turnpike in order to draw truck traffic back onto it.

Now, Ken Blackwell wants to lease the turnpike to a private operator who would be free to raise tolls at will. When the city of Chicago leased the Chicago Skyway to a private operator, they raised the toll to travel the 7.8 mile elevated highway to $2.50 for a passenger car. Applying that same rate of toll to the 241-mile Ohio Turnpike would result in a toll of nearly $75 to cross the state! Thus driving truck traffic back off of the Turnpike and back onto the main streets of small towns across Northern Ohio, resulting in increased accidents and pollution and decreased quality of life for area residents.

Secondly, asking residents of Northern Ohio to pay a toll to travel their main east-west interstate (I-80) while allowing residents of Central Ohio a toll-free ride across their main east-west interstate (I-70) is inherently unfair, and puts Northern Ohio at a competitive disadvantage when trying to attract businesses reliant upon transportation access. J-Ken plans to partially mitigate this by one-time investments in the area made from funds secured by leasing the Turnpike, but why should residents of one region of the state be asked to pay an extra tax for something that ultimately would benefit all Ohioans? Isn't that very unfair?

Finally, travelers upon the Turnpike drive cars and trucks which burn gasoline and diesel fuel. In order to purchase that fuel, those travelers paid excise taxes which are used for road maintenance. So they are already paying one tax for road maintenance, but by charging a toll for traveling the turnpike, the State of Ohio is asking them to pay another tax. Make no mistake about it: the Turnpike as it currently stands is double taxation, plain and simple. That an anti-tax crusader like Ken Blackwell supports a plan calling for the State's residents to be double-taxed is quite stunning when you stop and think about it. In my mind, the only reason J-Ken is contemplating this proposal is that those motorists who will be double-taxed are in heavily Democratic Northern Ohio and not likely to vote for him anyway. How else could he come up with such a short sighted, punitive proposal?

If this is really such a good idea, let's see him lease I-75 through downtown Cincinnati to a private toll operator. Let those in the GOP heartland of Ohio start being double-taxed, and then we'll see if what's good for the goose is really good for the gander.

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