Turnpike plan needs tweaked

After passing through the Ohio House, the onus now lies with northern senators, including Capri Cafaro, D-Hubbard, to write important safeguards into the Turnpike legislation.

Ohio plans to borrow $1.5 billion against future Ohio Turnpike tolls, match the money with federal funds, and spend several billion on infrastructure projects. The plan is a sound one, especially since so many projects, such as widening and safety improvements on Interstate-80 in southeastern Trumbull County, would otherwise be delayed for many years.

But since northern Ohio businesses and commuters shoulder the burden of Turnpike tolls, all or most of the money should be spent in northern Ohio. It’s insulting enough that northern Ohio is saddled with a toll road with businesses and commuters in central and southern Ohio crossing the state on Route 70 for free.

While Gov. John Kasich and other proponents of the borrowing plan have verbally committed to spending most of the money north of Route 30, no such language appears in the legislation that passed the House last week. The Senate should insert rules that favor the counties, such as Trumbull and Mahoning, through which the Turnpike runs.

And to protect all of Ohio, the Senate should amend the legislation so that it creates strict thresholds before allowing the money to be spent on new construction.

Highway funding is not keeping up with its main revenue source – the gas tax. One reason is because of more fuel-efficient vehicles. Another reason is that people are driving less.

According to a University of Michigan study, a record-high 30 percent of 19-year-olds nationwide are not licensed to drive. According to the Public Research Interest Group, driving among late teens and those in their early 20s is down 23 percent since 2001 while public transit and cycling has increased.

The trend toward less driving is expected to continue as baby boomers retire. Less driving means less need for new highways. Less driving means a lot less gas tax revenue.

Another reason highway budgets are struggling is the cost of maintaining existing infrastructure. Spending money borrowed against future Turnpike tolls on new construction, thus burdening future generations with the maintenance cost, makes the problem even worse long term.

The Senate should place into the Turnpike bill restrictions on the geographical areas where the money could be spent and restrictions against increasing Ohio’s highway capacity.