The Ohio Farm Bureau is opposed to leasing the Ohio Turnpike to a private investor.
John Kasich, Ohio governor, has proposed leasing the turnpike as a way to raise cash for transportation projects around the state. He has stated the bulk of money from the turnpike would be spent in northern Ohio.
But while the Farm Bureau is opposed to a lease, the organization has a fallback position.
Roy Norman, organization director for Fulton, Defiance, Henry, and Williams counties, said, “Generally, we (Farm Bureau) are opposed to it.
“But if it is going to happen, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed.”
•Maintenance and improvements of overpasses over the toll road.
Norman said for many farmers, being able to quickly, safely, and easily cross the toll road is their life blood, as they work fields on both sides of the turnpike.
Any contract with a private operator must contain provisions for maintenance and improvement of the overpasses, for the life of the lease.
Norman said the Farm Bureau wants provisions in any potential lease agreement to resolve storm water drainage issues between the turnpike and adjoining farmland that may develop in the future.
•Traffic on parallel routes.
If a private contractor raises turnpike tolls, trucks and cars may avoid the turnpike, placing more traffic stress on highways like US20 and St. Rt. 2.
A future lease must cover that issue as well.
•Support for “host” counties.
Norman said if the state receives funds from a lease, a significant portion of the money should stay in the northern Ohio counties the turnpike passes through, such as Fulton and Williams counties.
The “host” counties could spend the money for local highway projects or economic development.
•Fallen Timbers and Oak Openings.
Norman said Farm Bureau officials would like to see the Fallen Timbers and Oak Openings turnpike plazas near Swanton either rebuilt before any lease of the turnpike, or provisions for the plazas to be rebuilt be spelled out in the lease agreement.
Other concerns Farm Bureau officials would like to see addressed include policies on the enforcement of weight and load limits, and future addition of a third lane in western Ohio.
Norman said the Farm Bureau wants to see the turnpike remain “under Ohio control.
“If we are making millions off of the turnpike, why can’t we leave it as is?”
The turnpike is generating millions in revenue. In fact, revenue for tolls is expected to reach record levels by the end of the year.
Lauren Hakos, marketing and communications manager for the Ohio Turnpike Commission, said with about four weeks left in 2012, OTC officials are projecting that turnpike will collect $252 million in tolls alone.
That tops the last record year, 2010, by $19.9 million, or about 8.6%.
In 2010, revenue from tolls was $232.1 million. Revenue from tolls in 2011 was $231 million.
Hakos said turnpike tolls were increased about 10% on Jan. 1, 2012, which contributed to the increase in revenue.
For 2012, the turnpike commission budgeted total revenues at $268 million. The current projection says total revenues will be $274 million, an increase of $6 million, or about 2.2%.
While revenue is up, expenses are down.
In May, Rick Hodges, executive director of the Ohio Turnpike Commission, released plans to cut expenses.
The plan included requiring employees to pay a greater share of their benefit packages.
Also, top wage earners within the commission saw their pay cut. Hodges cut his own salary from $150,000 per year to $129,000.
Information systems departments were consolidated, and the maintenance and engineering departments were combined.
Hakos said expenses for 2012 were originally budgeted at $122 million.
Actual expenditures are projected to be $112 million, a cut of $10 million, or about 8.2%.
State officials have discussed preliminary results of a feasibility study, or “opportunity analysis,” conducted by KPMG, a Texas-based consulting firm.
The preliminary information, presented by officials from the Ohio Department of Transportation, showed that a lease of the highway wasn’t the only option for “unlocking value” from the toll road.
Another possibility includes selling bonds.
When a public entity sells a bond, it collects money from a buyer while promising to repay the full amount, plus interest.
Money to repay the bond usually comes from tax revenue. In the case of the turnpike, money to repay the bonds will come from tolls charged to those who use the turnpike.
Steve Faulkner, press secretary for ODOT, said Kasich has not released his plan for the future of the turnpike.
Faulkner said something from the governor is expected by the end of the year.