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Kasich's Ohio Turnpike plan quiets most critics

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Ohio's governor spent the past two years talking about how much money could be pocketed by selling or leasing the Ohio Turnpike despite a loud chorus of complaints over potential toll increases and job losses.

That's why it was a bit of surprise when the governor himself announced this past week that he instead wants to borrow against future toll revenue to generate up to $3 billion for highway and bridge construction projects.

By deciding against handing the toll road over to a private operator, Gov. John Kasich quieted some of his critics and likely avoided a lengthy political battle. While the decision also opened him up to questions about taking on more debt and how the new construction money will be divided, it showed a willingness to adjust his goals in the face of criticism.

It's clear that objections over privatizing the turnpike from both Republicans and Democrats impacted Kasich's decision, though he insisted the outcry wasn't the ultimate factor.

The governor said the proposal he settled on — raising $1.5 billion through bond sales — was a perfect solution because it addressed the worries over leasing the turnpike and satisfied his goal of getting more revenue out of toll road and fill a huge highway budget deficit.

"You want to listen to people," Kasich said while making the announcement Thursday. "This was the right answer based on, were we going to maintain control, what the public was concerned about. This was the sweet spot."

It wasn't the first time that one of Kasich's grand plans was influenced by public pushback.

In 2011, voters handed Kasich and fellow Republicans a stinging defeat when they repealed a newly passed collective bargaining law that would have stripped many bargaining rights from public worker unions. After that, Kasich was conciliatory.

"You have a campaign like this, you give it your best, if you don't win and the people speak in a loud voice, you pay attention to what they have to say and you think about it," he said publicly the next day.

As debate had raged over the issue, Kasich's plan to privatize state prisons, which had additional implications for public employees, emerged as far less ambitious than he'd originally envisioned.

Kasich has also expressed little interest in reopening collective bargaining debate, for example, by pursuing limited collective bargaining reform or right-to-work legislation, since that loss.

Gary Tiboni, president of the Teamsters local that represents close to 800 turnpike workers, said he thinks Kasich learned from his failed attempt to limit collective bargaining rights when weighing what to do with the toll road that carries about 50 million vehicles each year across northern Ohio.

Broad opposition to leasing the turnpike that crossed party lines was a factor too, he said. "Those kinds of things really helped," Tiboni said.

But Statehouse Democrats this week said Kasich still isn't listening. They believe he wants to use the turnpike deal to fund high-profile highway projects that will make him look good in any re-election bid while failing to free up state funding vital to local communities and schools.

The governor has not shown such enthusiasm for finding funding sources in those areas, said state Sen. Nina Turner of Cleveland.

"I hope we bring that same kind of zeal and zest when it comes to looking at what is happening to the Local Government Fund and what is happening to education in this state (in next year's budget debate)," she said.

Democrats called for using money from an unanticipated state budget surplus to restore budget cuts to municipalities and schools, but Kasich decided to leave the money in Ohio's nearly tapped-out Rainy Day Fund.

Despite the partisan criticism, Kasich's proposal seems to satisfy those who feared that a private turnpike operator would eliminate jobs, spend less on maintaining the road and impose higher tolls that would drive traffic onto local routes that meander through small towns.

The idea of a lease didn't sit well in the state's northwest corner because residents there had seen tolls nearly double since investors took over the nearby Indiana Toll Road, said Brian Davis, a commissioner in Williams County.

"They did not want that for the state of Ohio," Davis said.

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