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Budget bill language paves way for leasing of Ohio Turnpike

ODOT Director empowered to execute contract

While no deal for the leasing of the Ohio Turnpike has been struck, language in Governor John Kasich's $55.5 billion biennial budget plan certainly paves the way for the administration to move ahead with the concept.

That language prompted a barrage of questions last Thursday during a hearing of the Transportation Subcommittee of the Ohio House of Representatives' Finance Committee.

Kasich has said he would like to leverage the value of the turnpike to net some $2.5 billion in the short term to spend on state improvements and job creation efforts. He characterized the plan Wednesday, when signing the transportation budget (HB 114), as “something to think about.”

The language in his general revenue fund budget bill (HB 153), however, appears to set the stage for transforming those thoughts into action by broadening the powers of the directors of the Department of Transportation and the Office of Budget and Management.

“The bill requires the Director of Transportation to be the authorized representative of the Ohio Turnpike Commission for purposes of the bill,” according to the Legislative Service Commission analysis.

“The Director is to be authorized to execute any contract for the provision of a public service, notwithstanding any Ohio Turnpike Commission laws to the contrary.”

The budget language also significantly empowers the OBM director in terms of outsourcing authority to meet Kasich’s privatization aims. In addition to eying a turnpike lease, the governor has proposed selling off five state prisons.

In responding to inquiries from Chairman Rep. Ross McGregor (R-Springfield) and Rep. Alicia Reese (D-Cincinnati), ODOT Director Jerry Wray said selling the turnpike was out of the question, but he said options could include a lease or leveraging tolls to garner funding for other purposes.

“There are several options that will be examined,” he said, adding that the goal is to “use this asset for the best possible outcome for the state of Ohio.”

“We’re not going to say ‘yes’ to anything that’s not a huge benefit for the State of Ohio,” he added.

On questioning from Reece, the ODOT director said the concept of leasing the 241-mile toll road across northern Ohio has been discussed for several years. “Those discussions have intensified in the last several months,” he said.

Wray said a key difference provided for through the budget language is that private sector interests would “now know they’re talking to someone who has the authority to move forward.

While the state Controlling Board would be required to approve any lease contract, the approval of the entire General Assembly would not be necessary, under the terms of Kasich's proposal.

Rep. John Carney (D-Columbus) asked the ODOT director if he was open to an amendment requiring General Assembly review of any such proposals. Wray said he would be opposed to such a change given that the language is a specific proposal from his boss, the governor.

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