As the debate over whether to lease the Ohio Turnpike heats up, so too should talk about making the toll road free.
Officials on a five-county planning body in northeast Ohio have joined many other elected officials in opposing Gov. John Kasichs idea to lease the Turnpike. Board members of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency that includes mayors, county commissioners and engineers from Cuyahoga, Lorain, Medina, Lake and Geauga counties, voted against the proposal for the 241-mile road.
The agency published a report expressing fear that leasing the Turnpike would result in higher tolls that, in turn, would push more traffic onto parallel roads that are not suited for the increased volume.
Likewise, no toll at all would attract more volume from the parallel roads, increasing their safety perhaps as much as raising the toll would decrease their safety.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Ronald Gerberry, D-Austintown, presses on with proposed legislation that would block the Ohio Turnpike from being leased to private investors. Gerberry said the toll road is a recurring revenue stream for Ohio.
What Gerberry fails to realize is that Ohio doesn't have a revenue problem. Ohio has an expense problem and one of them is the Turnpike.
Turnpike employees make about 17 percent more than workers doing similar jobs at the Ohio Department of Transportation, according to a recent Plain Dealer newspaper report.
ODOT employees make an average annual salary of about $53,300 compared to their Turnpike counterparts who earn about $62,700. That does not include tollbooth workers, since ODOT has none for which to compare. Tollbooth workers and their supervisors earn about $63,100 annually.
Turnpike Commission Chairman Joseph Balog told the Plain Dealer the workers earn more than ODOT employees because they provide higher quality service. That sounds like bull.
The Ohio Trucking Association wants to place the Turnpike with ODOT, eliminating the duplicate high-salaried administration and bringing the personnel costs down to ODOT's level.
Great idea. Ohio should go a step further by eliminating tollbooths and collectors so northern Ohio residents no longer have a burden that their southern Ohio counterparts were never saddled with.
Kasich said leasing the roadway to a private operator has the potential to yield $2.5 billion. He wants to use a billion from any possible deal to invest in roads, bridges and harbors.
If Ohio leases the road that's a pretty good plan for the cash.
Members on the coordinating agency said if a deal goes through on the turnpike, the state should primarily direct the money to northern Ohio.
That's a good idea too. The last time the state considered leasing the Turnpike, supporters floated the idea of using some of the windfall to construct an intermodal facility in Trumbull County. That still would be a useful commodity.
Leasing the Turnpike is tempting if the money is used wisely and certain safeguards are included in the contract. Making the road free is the fairest option. The worst scenario, however, is keeping the status quo.