BOARDMAN - The Ohio Turnpike Commission held its first of three open meetings in Boardman on Wednesday to gauge public perception of Ohio Gov. John Kasich's new turnpike plan, which will result in increased tolls.
Yet nobody from the public attended.
"It could be that people are satisfied with the rate increase," Jerry Hruby, chairman of the OTC, said. "I've been a mayor for 26 years. We know when people are in the audience, there's an issue. When there's no one in the audience, you think people are basically satisfied."
Instead of privatizing or leasing the state-owned turnpike, Kasich signed a bill on April 1 that, when it goes into effect on July 1, would permit the OTC to issue $1.5 billion in Turnpike Revenue Bonds and increase tolls along the Ohio Turnpike. Revenues from bond sales and tolls would pay for turnpike renovations.
Joe Schiavoni, a state senator from Boardman, opposed the bill this spring, and introduced an amendment to freeze tolls for 10 years.
"The Republicans said no. The Turnpike Commission said, 'We need to have the flexibility to pay back bondholders if revenues fall short,'" Schiavoni said.
State Sen. Capri Cafaro voted for the transportation budget, but said rate increases was one of her biggest concerns.
"It was one of the few provisions within the budget that raised concerns for all of us," Cafaro said. "Unfortunately, anytime you vote for or against a bill, you vote for good things and for bad things. You have to look at it overall, the strength of the bill in its totality."
Neither Cafaro nor Schiavoni were able to attend the meeting as the Senate was in session.
Hruby says the plan is essential.
"The money is absolutely vital to create jobs and to keep up our crumbling infrastructure in the State of Ohio," he said.
Tolls will increase based on the median inflation rate over recent years.
"Over the last 20 years, tolls have gone up on average of 7 percent a year, whereas the inflation rate has been 2.7 percent," Rick Hodges, OTC executive director, said. "That was the governor's commitment, that's the commitment of this commission and we're all supportive of it."
Class 1 drivers - low two-axle vehicles and motorcycles -pay $16.50 for a full-length trip across the state. On Jan. 4, motorists will see the rate increase to $17 for the year, culminating in a $21.50 toll in 2023. E-Z Pass users in this class will see their current rate of $11.25 increase to $14.75 in 2023.
Drivers of Class 5 vehicles - trucks pulling boats, low six-axle and high five-axle vehicles - now pay $44 for a trip across the state. Next year the toll will inch to $45.25 and continue annually to a $57.50 charge in 2023. Should drivers use an E-Z Pass, the current rate of $35 will incrementally raise to $45.75
Class 1 drivers using an E-Z Pass won't experience rate increases for trips of 30 miles or less.
"It takes the person who now depends on the turnpike to go to work and comes home every day on the turnpike and it does not penalize them," Joseph Balog, Vice Chairman of the OTC, said.
As an example of how these rates would affect local residents, travellers using an E-Z Pass getting on the turnpike at the Niles-Youngstown Toll Plaza 218 and getting off at Plaza 187, the Streetsboro-state Route 14/Interstate 480 exit wouldn't see the current $1.50 increase until 2017, when it will raise to $1.75. In 2023, another quarter will be charged, making the route $2.
"Overall, the new proposed toll routes will remain very competitive with the rates charged by other toll authorities in this east-west corridor, and the rates for commercial vehicles will remain among the lowest in the country," Hruby said.
Rates per mile, for Class 1, E-Z Pass users, are .047 cents. Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have rates of .065, .083 and .092 cents, respectively. New York has the most similar rate to Ohio of those in the corridor, with .048 cents. Indiana, which boasts a .03 cent/per mile rate, is temporarily subsidizing its tolls, Marty Seekely, CFO and Comptroller of the OTC said.