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If You Believe That, I’ve Got a Bridge to Lease You! (Ohio Edition)

Ohio Governor John Kasich has inched one step closer to leasing his state’s turnpike in order to generate funding for much-needed infrastructure renovations. At a time when innovative means of financing are being desperately sought to reverse the trend of deteriorating roads and bridges nationwide, Kasich’s goals are commendable. However, as we wrote in March of 2011, privatization of this sort is a dangerous idea that can lead to hundreds of millions of lost dollars and poor service for constituents.

In that article, the title of which was reprised above, we referenced a critique of the practice of toll road privatization published by TruthOut. It detailed the fate of other states that have taken similar measures:

Highway contractors can be entitled to payments if there is an accident on the highway and if the police, fire and emergency crews do not give “appropriate” notice and do not perform their emergency work in a way that is “reasonable under the circumstances.” And, given the vagueness of those standards, states and cities may end up paying just to avoid the costs of litigation.

Worst of all, these deals put a stranglehold on democratic decision making and the public interest. For example, Virginia decided to promote carpooling to cut down on pollution, slow highway deterioration and lessen highway and urban congestion. As a result, Virginia must reimburse the private contractor for lost revenues from carpoolers, even though not all of the people in a car would otherwise have driven individually.

Indiana saw their dreams of securing new revenue through privatization turn into a safety nightmare when they passed the baton of authority for their toll road:

Shortly after it took over the Indiana Toll Road, the private contractor put sand-filled barrels in turn-arounds with no notice to the state. State officials begged and pleaded for the barrels to be removed, so police and emergency crews could get to accidents and deal with other public safety problems as quickly as possible. Those pleas fell on deaf ears, while the turn-arounds remained blocked for months.

Kasich laid out two potential options according to the The Columbus Dispatch:

Kasich said yesterday that he’s studying options that would leverage “more than $1 billion, and that’s a lowball (figure),” for the state, and that a formal proposal could be announced within 30 days. It’s believed that the Kasich administration is studying at least two options: leasing the turnpike over a period of years or issuing bonds against it.

Kasich described his estimate as both “conservative” and “a lot of money.” He said the funds would come to the state “over time” instead of in a lump payment, and they would be used “to take care of a lot of our infrastructure needs for a period of about a decade, if it’s done right.”

Kasich’s plan faces two major hurdles: legislative approval — it would have to give the Ohio Turnpike Commission the authority to use money on non-turnpike related matters — and rampant unpopularity in the northern part of the state where the turnpike more or less passes through. Kasich tried to rebuff this argument by portraying himself as the quintessential Clevelander.

“People are always worried we’ll take the money and put it somewhere else,” Kasich said. “I don’t think there’s been a governor that has never lived in Cleveland that’s spent more time here or who’s had northeast Ohio as a priority. I feel like I am here every day. It’s unbelievable.

“So we’re going to treat northeastern and northern Ohio and northwestern Ohio, we’re going to treat everybody fairly, and they’ll get a big chunk of the money.”

A frequently referenced alternative to turnpike privatization is the raising of tolls. Kasich says he has studied this option but is unwilling to implement it as it would lower the value of the Turnpike if sold. Toll hikes can also affect a politician’s popularity, something the maligned Governor is not likely to risk.


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