Lawmakers pass turnpike plan, higher speed limits

by MARC KOVAC | CAPITAL BUREAU CHIEF Published:

Columbus -- The Ohio House gave final approval March 21 to a $7.6 billion transportation budget that includes an increase in interstate speed limits, a freeze on tolls for passenger vehicles and a commitment to spend the bulk of $1.5 billion in turnpike bond proceeds in northern Ohio.

The bipartisan vote of 62-27 sends House Bill 51 to Gov. John Kasich for his expected signature, though the governor could line-item veto some provisions. The Ohio Senate passed the conference committee report by a 27-6 vote March 20.

The legislation calls for an increase in speed limits on interstate freeways outside of cities to 70 mph from 65 for all vehicles.

It retained a guarantee that 90 percent of anticipated turnpike-related bonds would be used for road projects within 75 miles and connected to the state's lone toll road.

It limited a freeze on turnpike tolls to passenger vehicles, with authority for toll hikes if required under bonding agreements or covenants currently in place.

The final bill did not include a proposed income tax credit for turnpike users subjected to toll increases higher than the rate of inflation. Members also blocked a House effort to increase weight limits for trucks on state highways to 90,000 pounds from 80,000 pounds.

The March 21 House debate was a repeat of earlier discussion in the chamber and during the committee process. Supporters called the legislation a jobs bill and a good example of bipartisan compromise.

"The process has worked," said Rep. Ross McGregor, a Republican from Springfield and primary sponsor of the bill. "And I think it has worked well, and it's something that I am proud of. … This is about jobs."

"… It will make our state a better place if we adopt it," said Rep. Ron Amstutz, R-Wooster.

And, "It's prudent, it creates jobs, and it's good for Ohio," added Rep. Lynn Wachtmann, R-Napoleon.

But opponents continued to say the legislation did not go far enough to ensure bond proceeds would be used for projects in northern Ohio and that some regular turnpike users will face toll increases.

"I think this is the very definition of kicking the can down the road," said Rep. John Carney, D-Columbus. "This is not good [transportation policy]."

Rep. Ronald Gerberry, D-Austintown, added, "Thousands of Youngstown residents drive from Mahoning County to Cleveland everyday to work. Most of them get on at 218 and get off at 187 … That's 31 miles. My people aren't going to be exempt. ... We've been sold a bill of goods, and the people of northern Ohio are going to pay for it. … Enjoy your roads, because my constituents are paying for them."

Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.

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