Politics Rears Its Head on Ohio Tollroad Lease

The Federal Highway Administration has recinded a grant to fund a study that would have, among other things, evaluated the potential for leasing the Ohio Turnpike to a private company. This is a good example of how the U.S. Department of Transportation has become increasingly politicized under the current Presidential Administration.

The retraction from federal transportation authorities came after several Ohio Congressmen and women from the northern part of the state as well as U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown sent a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation challenging the grant. Led by Congressman Tim Ryan, the letter claimed that the money was being used to “privatize” a state asset and questioned the idea that the turnpike should be sold after it was paid for by taxpayers. According to a press release reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (Oct. 7, 2011):

“I am absolutely opposed to the state of Ohio’s misguided attempt to misuse these federal funds for its radical plan to privatize the Ohio Turnpike,” Ryan said in a press statement. “It’s disappointing that during this rush to privatize the turnpike, the state attempted to misuse these federal funds for a plan that could potentially cost drivers through significantly increased tolls, threaten the job security of over 1,000 Ohioans, and drive up costs for local governments through increased maintenance costs for local roads. Federal money should be used to create jobs, not eliminate them.”

It’s apparent from the press release, public statements and the letter that these elected officials are conciously manipulating public opinion for pure political gain. (See also the commentary from Tollroads News here.)

The “privatization” being discussed is hardly radical. In fact, it’s standard policy in other parts of the world, including Europe, China, and India. In fact, the U.S. is a laggard in the use of this tool to finance and manage public assets. The state of Ohio is not considering a “sale” of a public asset, either; it’s considering a long-term lease to a private company in what’s called a concession with strict performance criteria that usually shifts risk off taxpayers. The allusion to 1,000 jobs being lost (err, “threatened”) is a red herring. Even if jobs are reduced–and substantial evidence suggests the turnpike’s payroll is bloated–hundreds of jobs will still be held by Ohioans. Moreover, Ohio Gov. Kasich has been clear in that he wants to use the revenues from the lease to fund infrastructure investments in other parts of the state (following the successful lead of Indiana’s lease of the its tollroad by Gov. Mitch Daniels). So, these funds would in fact generate the jobs the Congressmen and women claim will be threatened or lost through other infrastructure projects.

Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised. The White House has long abandoned its 2008 campaign promise of pursuing evidence-based public policy.