Turnpike Lease is a Budget Red Herring


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Attention has been paid in recent days to the possibility of privatizing the Ohio Turnpike (Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dayton Daily News) as part of a budget fix. According to the Plain Dealer report, Cleveland-area transportation officials have been told by legislators that a Turnpike lease will be part of the Governor’s budget submission on Tuesday.

Despite all the coverage, there is a major reason this cannot be part of any budget solution, and it is this:

It is unconstitutional. according to the Ohio Constitution, § 12.05a Use of motor vehicle license and fuel taxes restricted

No moneys derived from fees, excises, or license taxes relating to registration, operation, or use of vehicles on public highways, or to fuels used for propelling such vehicles, shall be expended for other than costs of administering such laws, statutory refunds and adjustments provided therein, payment of highway obligations, costs for construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair of public highways and bridges and other statutory highway purposes, expense of state enforcement of traffic laws, and expenditures authorized for hospitalization of indigent persons injured in motor vehicle accidents on the public highways.

In other words, any proceeds the state gets from leasing the turnpike — accepting an upfront cash payment for allowing a private operator to maintain the road, collect tolls, and retain any profits for a set number of years — must be spent on roads. You can’t divert it to the general fund to fill the state’s budget hole. And you can’t use it to replace any general funds that may currently be paying for roads, because there really aren’t any. Transportation projects are funded with dedicated gas tax and federal revenue sources.

It’s also a political non-starter. Legislators who represent residents along the Turnpike corridor are not going to vote for a proposal that would send those dollars to other parts of the state. Further, to make any money off the deal and justify a large up-front payment, a private operator would need the ability to raise tolls, as has been the experience with similar deals in Chicago and Indiana. Beside hitting Northern Ohio drivers in the wallet, increased tolls will send truck traffic off onto side roads, and may even cause a shift of the state’s logistics and distribution network toward the untolled I-70 corridor (see this recent analysis by NE Ohio’s regional transportation agency, NOACA). It will never see the light of day after it’s sent to the General Assembly.

Again, who knows with these guys. They might propose it and expect the legislature to go along with it. Maybe they’ll even propose a constitutional amendment to allow them to spend the money, but neither are going to fly. No matter how much you threaten homicide by bus.

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6 Comments

  1. “You can divert it to the general fund to fill the state’s budget hole. ”

    Assume you mean “You canNOT…”.

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