YOUNGSTOWN - Some elected officials in communities along the 241 miles of Ohio Turnpike have unified in opposition of efforts to sell or lease the toll road.
Worries over higher tolls, less maintenance and traffic shifting away from the turnpike to other routes if the proposal becomes real has the leaders from northeast Ohio and elsewhere wanting to be part of the policy discussion, a discussion they say has excluded them so far.
Thursday, that discussion got heated.
A woman reaches for her ticket from a toll booth on the Ohio Turnpike. Ohio is embroiled in a debate over whether to lease the highway. AP file
''It's wrong; it's our road,'' said State Rep. Ron Gerberry, D-Austintown. ''The people in Cincinnati don't give a damn about that road, the people in Columbus don't care about that road, but from Williams County to Mahoning County, through Lorain through Erie, through every county across the state of Ohio, and there are some Republican representatives, I got to tell you ... that on every single issue we have dealt with in the first year of this administration, the sheep have followed John Kasich. They've gone off the cliff with him on every issue.
''We paid for that road, John Kasich should go back to McKees Rocks or wherever the hell he's from. That's where he should go cause I've about had it,'' Gerberry said.
Gerberry and a group of political leaders from around the state gathered Thursday to publicize their fight of the Governor's proposal to lease or sell the road. Gerberry has introduced a bill that would ban the privatization of the turnpike, but it hasn't had a hearing.
But Rob Nichols, spokesman for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said it would be irresponsible and reckless to ignore the fiscal realities presenting Ohio.
''When Mr. Gerberry's party was in charge, that was precisely what happened and we are left to clean up their mess,'' Nichols lashed back. ''We are as disappointed as anyone that a number of these TRAC projects have to be delayed, but also have as adults a responsibility that the state move forward and we explore our options accordingly.''
TRAC, or Transportation Review Advisory Council, is a committee that works with ODOT officials in developing a project selection process for the state's largest road investments. It was announced recently that many of those upcoming projects are being delayed due to budget constraints.
Among those projects facing cutbacks are plans to add a third lane in Interstate 80 from Interstate 680 to state Route 193 in Trumbull County, and to modify interchanges at Interstate 80 / Interstate680 / state Route 11 /state Route 46 in Mahoning County.
Thursday, those opposed to the turnpike sale said they would do their own study to analyze the proposal of privatizing the turnpike and will hold hearings in communities that stretch along the turnpike.
''Policy is not just supposed to land on you from Columbus,'' said Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald Thursday during a gathering in Mahoning County. ''There's supposed to be a collaborative process that has been completely missing in a number of state policies ... there almost has been no discussion whatsoever, so we're going to force our way into the discussion.''
FitzGerald said he would dedicate resources from his planning staff and Public Works Department to study the privatization idea, so ''we're not going to get a one-sided conversation,'' he said, referring to the state study of the turnpike and its future.
New York-based KPMG, a financial services and audit firm, has been selected by the Ohio Department of Transportation to review the turnpike, ultimately to provide what will be a ''dispassionate, informed, unbiased look at what could be the highest use for the turnpike,'' said Nichols.
Nichols said zero federal transportation dollars coming to Ohio, the state just overcoming an $8 billion budget hole and ODOT delaying work on projects because of lack of funds has caused the need for alternatives to be examined.
''No decision has been made, but if we want to have infrastructure in the state, build roads and bridges, which is commerce, we have to look at other options,'' Nichols said.