COLUMBUS — Gov. John Kasich and administration officials have said repeatedly that the majority of proceeds from the bonding of future Turnpike toll revenues would be used for road projects in northern Ohio.
But state transportation officials told lawmakers Wednesday that they don’t support establishing that expectation in state code, via a specific percentage guarantee added to the biennial transportation budget.
“We have projects all over the state that involve safety, congestion relief, opportunities for jobs and commerce,” said Jerry Wray, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation. “A lot of projects [are] in northern Ohio. .... Just by the fact that there are so many projects and that’s where the population is, that’s where the congestion is, there’s no doubt that the majority of money will end up in northern Ohio, just by the process itself.”
He added, “To try to contrive some sort of a quota or a line or a percentage and say let’s force a certain amount here or there would remove the flexibility that we need to try to make sure that we have an excellent transportation system statewide, and necessarily the majority of the money will go to northern Ohio.”
Wray offered the comments during the House finance committee’s initial hearing on the governor’s two-year spending plan for ODOT, the Turnpike Commission and the Department of Public Safety.
The budget bill included Kasich’s plans for the Ohio Turnpike, though the provisions were removed from initial legislation and introduced as a separate bill Wednesday.
The plan would maintain state ownership of the turnpike, meaning no lease or sale to a private entity. The state would borrow about $1.5 billion, via bonding against tolls, and hope to leverage another $1.5 billion in local and federal funding for construction projects.
The administration has said repeatedly that more than 90 percent of new bond money would go to roadwork in the northern third of the state, generally north of U.S. Route 30.
The plan, Kasich and administration officials have said, would enable the state to pay for needed road and bridge improvements in years rather than decades.
“What this is about is time,” Wray said. “We’re committed to all of the projects that are on the list all over the state of Ohio. They all have great merit to improve the economy, quality of life and safety in their area. The issue is when will we be able to build them. And this is about building more projects sooner.”
Among other provisions, Kasich’s transportation budget proposal also would change the name of the Ohio Turnpike Commission to the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Committee.
It would increase commission membership to 10 from nine, with six appointed by the governor with the consent of the Ohio Senate. No more than three could be from the same political party, as opposed to two under current requirements. And members appointed after July 1 would serve three-year terms rather than eight.
Much of the debate during Wednesday’s committee hearing focused on the bonding plan and whether proceeds would be used for projects along the Turnpike. Rep. Matt Lundy, a Democrat from Elyria, said residents of his district are concerned that proceeds would go to other parts of the state.
“We’re going to bond the Turnpike, a lot of our residents will be paying the tolls to help facilitate payment for those bonds and... the money will end up going other places in the state,” Lundy said.
Rep. Kathleen Clyde, a Democrat from Kent, added, “I know that the constituents in my district are very concerned that they pay the tolls and they pay the motor fuel tax and they are worried that the money that they invest in the Turnpike in the tolls that they pay will be used for projects in other parts of the state. I would like to see language put in the proposal that eventually could be enacted that guarantees that money is spent in northern Ohio.”
One Democratic member was blunt in his summation of the setup. Rep. Mike Foley, a Democrat from Cleveland, questioned whether the governor would use Turnpike-leveraged funding as part of his reelection campaign.
“Putting my cynical political hat on, I’ve got real concerns that this is just a potential slush fund for the governor to ... between now and 2014, to have a whole bunch of projects out there that he can point to and say, ‘Look what I did, reelect me,’” Foley said.
But Wray reiterated his opposition to setting percentage requirements, saying it would make it difficult to complete planned projects in the short term.
“It would be foolish to contrive a number or some goal or whatever to say we’re going to spend this much money in this place,” he said. “What we ought to be after is, we’re going to get our transportation system in great shape. It’s going to be safe, it’s going to be connected, people are going to be mobile. That’s the goal... the actual result on the ground, not a quota of a certain number of dollars spent in an area.”
Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.