Many Ohioans are eagerly awaiting the results of a yearlong study on the future of the Ohio Turnpike, but almost everybody, it seems, assumes that the study will call for privatization of the 241-mile-long toll road.
The study, which cost the state $3.4 million, is due by the end of the month. Governor John Kasich, a Republican, has raised the idea of privatizing the toll road or rest stops, but he says he will rely on the report before making any final decisions. The consultants could propose ideas other than privatization, such as bonds to build infrastructure or a reorganization of the agency that runs the toll road.
The governor made clear last week, though, that he is looking for major changes. “If you're not willing to take chances, if you're not willing to innovate, you're going to go backwards. And I don't want Ohio to go backwards,” he told a contractors' convention, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
Kasich is looking for ways to get more out of the toll road, which anticipates record revenues of $270 million this year after a toll hike in January.
“Why would we have an asset in our state that is underutilized, where value could be captured from that asset and it can be used to generate jobs and also the ability to do the infrastructure needs that we have in a state that's within 600 miles of 60 percent of the country?” he asked. He said people are afraid of the plan, even though they do not know what the plan entails. “What are you afraid of?”
But resistance is already forming. The Ohio Contractors Association that Kasich addressed last week wants the Turnpike Authority merged with the state's transportation department instead of leased to a private entity. The Ohio Farm Bureau also affirmed its opposition to the idea recently, following a visit from Kasich. And Democrats nearly knocked off a Republican legislator in the election last month by falsely accusing him of supporting privatization.
The opposition is particularly strong near the turnpike, in the northern tier of the state. Residents are worried about the possibilities of higher tolls, shifts in traffic to local roads and the distribution of their toll money to other parts of the state.
Both proponents and opponents of the idea point to the experience of Indiana's 2006 privatization of the Indiana Toll Road, the segment of Interstate 80 that links the Ohio Turnpike to the Chicago Skyway. Indiana benefited from great timing on the market when it put up the road, and it received $3.8 billion for a 75-year lease.
Indiana used that money as a primary source for a statewide road-building campaign. The new operators nearly doubled tolls, which had remained level since 1985, when they took over in 2007.