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Coronavirus crisis puts brakes on Ohio Turnpike toll collections; motorists, meanwhile, put pedal to the metal

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 5/5/2020 By Robert Higgs, cleveland.com
a parking lot: The Ohio Turnpike is losing millions of dollars in tolls each month because of reduced traffic attributed to the coronavirus crisis, records show. March collections were down just over 10% from March 2019. Preliminary numbers show April down by nearly 35% from 2019. © Grant Segall, The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com/TNS The Ohio Turnpike is losing millions of dollars in tolls each month because of reduced traffic attributed to the coronavirus crisis, records show. March collections were down just over 10% from March 2019. Preliminary numbers show April down by nearly 35% from 2019.

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Ohio Turnpike is losing millions of dollars in tolls each month because of reduced traffic attributed to the coronavirus crisis, records show.

March collections dropped by about $2.5 million, or just over 10% from March 2019. Preliminary numbers for April show a decline of nearly $9 million, nearly 35% from 2019.

Most of the decline reflects fewer automobiles using the 241-mile toll road. Records show 62% fewer passenger cars on the turnpike in April than in April 2019. Commercial traffic is down 20 percent on the turnpike and on other Ohio highways.

The turnpike has projected an operating loss of about $65 million for the year, Adam Greenslade, the turnpike’s director of government affairs, marketing and communications, said in an email to cleveland.com.

But that projection assumed that Gov. Mike DeWine’s stay-at-home order, issued March 22, would remain in place through June, with Ohio businesses gradually reopening in July and August. DeWine has since allowed some businesses to reopen this month.

The anticipated losses have prompted the Ohio Turnpike Commission to impose a hiring freeze and make plans to reduce some work shifts. Other expenses have been cut and other adjustments may follow.

“No decisions have been made yet, but we are looking at capital projects and may delay a number of small projects until next year,” Greenslade said.

Automobile traffic also has declined on Ohio’s other interstates and state and federal highways.

“You pull up a traffic camera on the George V. Voinovich Bridge (on the Inner Belt in Cleveland) on an afternoon drive and it looks like a Sunday,” said Matt Bruning, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation.

For the turnpike, the principal source of revenue is toll collections, so a big reduction in traffic can produce a big hit to the turnpike’s budget.

The turnpike, however, will adjust, Greenslade said. Some projects scheduled for 2021 could be moved to 2022 to accommodate delays from this year.

The commission also took advantage of favorable market conditions, refinancing some bonds at a savings of nearly $140 million.

The lighter traffic on the highways has provided an upside, allowing ODOT road crews to get more work done because they can close some lanes during the daytime, Bruning said.

“We’ve been able to get some more things done than we would have,” he said. “We’ve been able to do some work that normally would have been done at night only.”

A study by Ohio State University’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis found that when Ohioans do take to the road, they are putting the pedal to the metal.

Researchers compared traffic data in Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati and Columbus from March 28 to April 19 last year with the same time period this year.

In all three cities, the average level of speeding was up slightly, but the “levels of extreme speeding have increased dramatically," Harvey Miller, a professor of geography and director of CURA, said in a news release.

The average level of speeding since the pandemic began is between 2.1 mph and 2.6 mph, compared to a year ago when the average was 0.8 mph to 1 mph.

But in some spots the average is much higher -- as much as 28 mph above normal.

“There are stretches of road where people are really opening up,” Miller said. “The message is that less traffic doesn’t necessarily mean our streets are safer. In some ways, they may be more hazardous because we’re seeing more dangerous speeding.”

More coronavirus coverage

Cleveland to provide nearly $30 million in coronavirus relief to business and residents

Cleveland will put health concerns first as it reopens, even if that means canceling summer events, mayor says

Coronavirus deaths eclipse 11-year Vietnam War casualties in 9 weeks; pandemic among deadliest U.S. events

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson extends COVID-19 coronavirus proclamation of civil emergency through May

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