ELYRIA, Ohio - In a cash-strapped state like Ohio, selling the 241 miles of the Ohio Turnpike would raise a lot of money fast for road and bridge projects in northern Ohio.
But Cuyahoga County Executive Ed Fitzgerald said the state shouldn't rush to sell the turnpike to a private corporation.
"I think they're rushing into to it because it's a valuable asset. They've got some budget problems and instead of dealing with them, they're talking about just selling things off," Fitzgerald said.
"What we don't want to happen is a fire sale attitude, where before we've even done the research, they're already saying 'let's sell this off and make some quick cash.' This is a decision that the people in this part of Ohio are going to have to live with for the rest of our lives," added Fitzgerald.
Lorain County Commissioner Ted Kalo agreed. "It may be a short term gain, but it's going to be a long term pain."
When Indiana leased its toll road, Kalo explained fees went up and maintenance went down.
"This roadway is the best highway in the state of Ohio and our residents' livelihoods are dependent on this operating, whether it's moving freights, steel or auto, or moving agricultural from Indiana to Pennsylvania," Kalo said.
Gov. John Kasich supports a plan that would lease Ohio's turnpike for several billion dollars, infusing the state with cash to fix other roads and bridges.
The state is paying a firm nearly $3 million to study whether leasing the Ohio Turnpike would be beneficial for the state.
Ohio Turnpike executive director Rick Hodges said the year-long study is looking at many options for the toll road.
"The turnpike has used the same business model for 60 years, maybe it's the best, but I think we owe it to the rate payers and our customers to take an honest look at the asset we call the turnpike and what's the best way to manage and run it," Hodges said.
More than 1,200 people work for the Ohio Turnpike and some 48 million vehicles, including 10 million trucks, use the Ohio Turnpike every year.
Hodges said options other than keeping the same model or leasing include a joint operating agreement with the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), outsourcing some services or leasing out part of the road.
The first of three public meetings on this issue was held Tuesday night in Elyria at the Lorain County Transportation Center. Roughly 100 people attended with most voicing displeasure at any plan involving the loss of state control.
Some pointed to the perceived degradation of the neighboring Indiana Turnpike as what would happen to Ohio went to leasing as Indiana did. Echoing Kalo, they fear higher rates, less maintenance and job losses if the state of Ohio were to lease to road.
While Hodges enjoyed hearing praise for his road and his employees, he said the debate about its future is needed.
"We're at a crossroads here in Ohio. This is a very important issue and we need to all look at it very carefully, and I'm confident that the administration and the people who are in the room want to do what's right for Ohio" he said.
The next meeting is set for July 25 in Lucas County. Details of that meeting are still being planned.
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