ELYRIA — Privatization of the Ohio Turnpike is the road to ruin, speakers said at a Tuesday meeting on the proposal.
“It’s a highway robbery to give that Turnpike away,” said Ernie Peto of Olmsted Falls, one of more than a dozen residents and local leaders who denounced the plan being considered by Gov. John Kasich.
Kasich is reportedly seeking some $3 billion to lease the Turnpike, but opponents argued that short-term profits could have long-term consequences.
While the Turnpike made $23.6 million in profits last year, the Indiana Toll Road – leased in 2006 in a $3.8 billion, 75-year deal with an Australian-Spanish consortium that pays no annual taxes to Indiana – lost $209 million in 2010.
While tolls have increased, speakers said the quality of the Toll Road has deteriorated since privatization. Margaret Conway of Avon Lake described decrepit bathrooms in the Toll Road's plazas.
“The plazas in Indiana are a complete embarrassment to that state,” she said. “Do we want that for Ohio?”
Dale Lay, a part-time Turnpike toll collector from Lorain, said drivers frequently complain to him about the unmanned toll booths in Indiana. Lay said he earns $5 less than full-time collectors and receives no benefits.
He said the unionized collectors are overworked and worry they’ll be laid off under privatization. Lay accused the Republican Kasich of playing politics.
“He’s wants to bust every union in the state,” Lay said.
State Rep. Matt Lundy, D-Elyria, also accused Kasich of a pro-privatization agenda and said the Legislature has been shut out of the process. Lundy urged privatization opponents to write Tim Keene, Ohio Budget and Management director, and Jerry Wray, Ohio Department of Transportation director, who Lundy said would decide on privatization.
“They’re not elected officials, so the accountability’s not there,” he said.
Edward FitzGerald, Cuyahoga County executive, said the approximately $3 million study on privatization expected to be concluded in several months is fixed because it’s being done by KPMG, the international consulting firm that recommended privatizing the Toll Road. James Riley, ODOT Division of Innovative Delivery deputy director, countered that the fix wasn’t in.
Riley said the 240-mile Turnpike is an asset, but privatization needs to be explored noting the Turnpike generated $251.4 million in revenue last year.
“It’s a significant opportunity for the state to find out how to leverage that money to help the state fill jobs and build roads,” Riley said adding that the Turnpike, which opened in 1955, will need significant future upgrades that privatization could help fund.
Riley said Ohio has three options regarding the Turnpike: do nothing, have ODOT control the Ohio Turnpike Commission or have ODOT take over the Turnpike and privatize it. Rick Hodges, commission executive director, argued that doing nothing wasn’t viable.
“There’s no business around that can be successful for 60 years without changing its business model,” Hodges said.
FitzGerald said more public meetings will be held on privatization around Northeast Ohio to make the process more transparent.
“You’re changing the dialogue,” he told the approximately 70 people who attended the meeting at the Lorain County Transportation and Community Center. “When we weren’t organized, we were hearing something different.”
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Proponents of privatizing the Ohio Turnpike say money for the lease could fund road projects around Ohio, while opponents say the Turnpike needs to remain public to continue to be profitable and well maintained.
• 1955: year Turnpike opened
• 241 miles: total length
• 49.2 million: number of vehicles that traveled Turnpike in 2011 (39 million cars, 10.2 million trucks)
• 5.8 million: number of vehicles exiting or entering the Lorain-Elyria interchange in 2011
• $231 million: toll revenue in 2011
• $251.4 million: total revenue in 2011
• $57.8 million: annual profit in 2011
Source: Ohio Turnpike Commission's 2011 annual report