Exclusive LL interview with G. Alan Plain, executive director of the Ohio Turnpike Commission

by Sandi Soendker
Managing Editor

LL: In the spring of 1996, state lawmakers approved various measures for the turnpike. They agreed to leave the tolls as they are with additional increases set to be phased in Jan. 1997 through July 1998. These graduated increases replaced the 80 percent hike the turnpike approved in 1995. To date, what increases have taken place?

Plain: In April of 1995, the commission announced an 82 percent increase to be implemented on July 1, 1995. Subsequently, after meeting with representatives of various trucking groups, the commission agreed to phase the increase in over a three-year period to enable the trucking industry time to reflect the rate increase in their long-term contracts. To date, the following increases have been implemented.

Jan. 1, 1996 - 15 percent;

Jan. 1, 1997 - 20 percent;

Jan. 1, 1998 - 10 percent. 

LL: Have any of these scheduled increases been delayed or eliminated? 

Plain: The commission delayed the last scheduled increase of 9.09 percent from July 1, 1998, to Jan. 1, 1999.

LL: Lawmakers call for the turnpike commission to hold at least one public meeting 30 days in advance of the rate increases planned for the pike. Has the opinion of the public had any impact on the rate increases? How much impact has the STOP group had on the plans for the pike?

Plain: The STOP group has had no influence on the plans for the turnpike.

LL: You have said that toll increases are needed to keep the road in good condition and pay for lane expansions. As I understand it, the National Highway System legislation that passed in 1995 calls for 90 percent federal funding for these projects, meaning states would only have to come up with ten percent for matching funds from state taxes. Can you explain to our readers why Ohio needs more funding than 90 percent?

Plain: The Ohio Turnpike does not receive any federal funding or state funding, even though we carry the interstate designations for parts of I-80, I-90 and I-76. The interstate system was designated on the Ohio Turnpike by a Tripartite Agreement signed in 1956 among the ODOT, FHWA and Ohio Turnpike Commission.

As a result, the state and federal government did not have to expend additional funds to build a parallel interstate facility. The Ohio Turnpike received no additional compensation.

The state includes our mileage in the National Highway System and receives a soft match credit for federal matching funds based on each construction dollar we spend. Although the commission does not receive any compensation back from the state, the policy helps to keep the fuel taxes down.

In addition, the state was allocated approximately $150,000 from the feds over 1997, 1998, for the construction of the turnpike. Even then, the state did not pay for the construction of the turnpike.

As you can see, the turnpike has generated substantial funding for the state of Ohio. The commission does receive five cents per dollar of the fuel tax for fuel sold at our service plazas. In an effort to lessen the toll increase impact on the trucking industry and to help prevent trucks leaving the turnpike onto crowded parallel facilities where money is designated for state routes over the turnpike, I suggested a plan to the Legislative Oversight Committee in 1997. This plan suggests that the state refund all or a portion of the 22 cents per gallon fuel tax back to the truckers, based on miles driven on the turnpike.

This proposal is based on the fact that the state does not maintain or operate the turnpike. Tolls provide for the maintenance and operation. This concept would be similar to the old axle-mile tax for which the truckers were exempt from paying on the turnpike. To illustrate my proposal for the fuel tax, here's an example. Using a portion of the fuel tax, a truck averages approximately 5.5 miles per gallon of fuel. Then 0.17 cents divided by 5.5 miles per gallon equals a 3.1 cent per-mile rebate.

This rebate would amount to approximately a 31 percent reduction in tolls (1998 rates) for an empty semi (Class 5) and approximately a 19 percent reduction in tolls (1998 rates) for a Class 8 vehicle.

Inasmuch as the state does not maintain our road system, the fuel tax is diverted to the state, which I consider to be inequitable.

LL: Does the commission have the authority to expand its operations to take in new sections of roads and bridges?

Plain: The commission has the authority to build, maintain and operate other toll facilities, but we would insist that tolls would not be diverted from the Ohio Turnpike to these projects, they would have to stand on their own merit.

LL: Is there any plan to take in new roads or build new toll facilities? 

Plain: There is no current plan to build any new toll facility.

LL: You have suggested that the state reduce the speed limit on side roads, reduce weight limits for trucks and set up more weigh stations. All this to deter much of the truck traffic from straying off the turnpike. Has anything in this vein been done, or are there plans for anything to be done?

Plain: Not to my knowledge. The turnpike weighs all Class 2 and above on entry as part of our classification system.

LL: Why are the weight classifications for commercial trucks split the way they are? With anything between 70,000 and 90,000 pounds in a class together? Should a normal 80,000 pound legal load pay the same as an over-sized load?

Plain: The weights were designated years ago. We are reviewing the weight classifications to determine what, if any, adjustments can be implemented.

LL: Why are there third-lane restrictions?

Plain: To permit passenger cars to bypass trucks that are restricted to the right two lanes without impeding passenger cars as they do in the two-lane sections.

LL:Will truckers see uniform speed limits on the pike?

Plain:Probably not.

LL: What kind of changes will truckers notice on the turnpike as the next ten-year period unfolds?

Plain: Electronic toll collection, new travel centers, additional parking and amenities, new food concepts and competitive pricing, completion of the third lane section between Exit 4 (59) to Exit 15 (218) and many other services to benefit all turnpike travelers. LL