Will Ohio go to 70 mph speed limit?

MARIETTA – Travelers on Interstate 77 may soon no longer have to hit the brakes when they cross the border from West Virginia into Ohio.

Senators in Ohio signed off on a bill that would increase the speed limit for interstates in rural areas this week but the House balked at the measure, sending it back to committee.

The bill would adjust speed limits from 65 mph to 70 mph on most portions of interstates in Ohio.

In the plan the speed limit would remain 65 mph in freeway portions passing through the outer belts of urban areas, and heavily congested areas located near cities would remain 55 mph.

“A critical issue for the State Highway Patrol was ensuring that these highly populated urban areas did not change to 70 mph,” said Lt. Anne Ralston, spokeswoman for the Ohio State Highway Patrol. “For instance the highways around the outer belt of Columbus would remain what they are, but I-77 near Marietta would increase to 70 mph.”

The change would have an impact on both commercial drivers and citizens just trying to get around.

The issue for most truck drivers isn’t how fast the speed limit is set, but rather when different speed limits are posted for cars and trucks, according to Jeff Starner, the owner of Merchants 5 Star trucking company in Marietta.

Starner said about 47 percent of Merchants 5 Star’s miles are driven in Ohio, but the change might not affect every truck or route.

“Generally speaking the truck industry favors lower speeds anyway,” he said. “Companies use a number of variables including fuel economy, driver satisfaction and what the landscape is on the route to determine what speed is best.”

The change in speed limit is an amendment to House Bill 51, according to Sen. Gayle Manning, R-Huron, and chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

“The reason we added this was because there are 35 other states already doing it,” said Manning. “Our roads and cars are safer than ever. This increase is just going to help save people time.”

There are currently 35 states including Ohio, that have a speed limit set to 70 mph or above on some portion of their roadway system, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s website.

States surrounding Ohio that have a speed limit of 70 mph are West Virginia, Michigan, Kentucky and Indiana.

The Ohio Turnpike changed its speed limit to 70 mph in April 2011 and is currently the only state roadway with a 70 mph speed limit posted.

“The first year they made the change to 70 mph fatalities actually decreased, I believe,” said Manning. “I think accidents in some cases have less to do with the speed of travel, and more to do with weather conditions.”

Ralston said that no in-depth studies on the speed increase and its effect on the Ohio Turnpike were conducted so it’s hard to speculate one way or the other.

“We would need to research that issue in great detail to make any sort of conclusion on if the increase in speed is more dangerous,” said Ralston. “Regardless our goal is to enforce the laws with professionalism and fairness, which we will continue to do regardless of what the speed limit is.”

Some local residents don’t believe the increase in the speed limit is needed for the interstates.

“I think cars are going fast enough as it is,” said Robert Stewart, 87, of Newport. “The faster you are going the less control you have and the harder it is to stop.”

A number of people said they would be excited about the change, however.

Nancy Sams, 72, of Belpre, said she has been waiting for an increase in the speed limit.

“When you have to drive on a four-lane highway at 55 or 60 miles an hour it’s really ridiculous,” said Sams. “The idea of a highway is that you have a direct route to get somewhere quickly.”

Sams said she frequently travels and could never understand why other states had higher speed limits than Ohio.

“West Virgina has some very crooked roads and they are able to travel 70 mph,” she said. “I don’t see a bit of a problem with Ohio increasing the speed limit on highways.”

Cody Gutberlet, 20, of Marietta agrees that the change is a plus for drivers.

“I think in this area it’s especially important,” he said. “People leaving or entering West Virgina would have to worry about slowing down or speeding up when entering Ohio before this adjustment.”

Gutberlet travels to work via the interstate regularly and said that he used to use it every day on his way to school. He isn’t concerned with the increase in speed causing any safety issues, but he did admit he worries people will attempt to abuse the new limit.

“I don’t think 5 mph more is going to lead to more crashes if people are driving safe,” said Gutberlet. “But it’s just like it is with any other limit…people will try to push it by going 5 mph over.”

The House of Representatives passed a version of this bill last week, which the Senate made some changes on, according to Manning.

“We combined two separate bills, 35 and 51, because they were both involving transportation,” she said. “We made some changes to the bill they passed that they didn’t agree with, so now we have to meet and come to a compromise.”

These issues will be addressed in a conference between the House and Senate that will take place before Wednesday, according to Manning. Once the sides come to an agreement it will be sent on to Gov. John Kasich for further review.

The bill also introduced Kasich’s plan to issue $1.5 billion in bonds from the Ohio Turnpike revenue for infrastructure projects. Of that money 90 percent of the funds would be used for the state of Ohio, according to Manning.

These funds would be used for projects that have a “nexus,” or close proximity, with the Ohio Turnpike.

Manning said that this is one of the biggest bills in terms of creating jobs in the general assembly.

“This is going to bring new money to roads in the State of Ohio and create around 65,000 jobs,” said Manning.

Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, was one of the six senators who voted against the bill.

Gentile said the revenue used for these projects would do a great deal of good and create new jobs, but he was concerned at how the money was being generated.

“My reluctance to sign on to this wasn’t because I don’t want to promote growth or the building of new roads and bridges in the state,” he said. “It’s the uncertainty of what would happen to the state and citizens who pay Ohio Turnpike tolls if we fall behind on payments.”

The 1.5 billion in revenue that is generated is essentially being borrowed from future toll revenue that the Ohio Turnpike would produce, according to Gentile.

He said a similar proposal had occurred in Pennsylvania in the past and that it didn’t work out as smoothly as they had planned.

“Pennsylvania attempted to raise revenue against future funds that was similar to this,” he said. “They fell behind and were forced to increase tolls for five consecutive years.”

Gentile said the increase in speed limit had little to do with his decision to appeal the bill, but that he did wish it was reviewed more.

“I didn’t have a strong feeling about the speed limit, but we heard very little from the stakeholders that it affects,” said Gentile. “My main concern is that this revenue generated might hurt middle class citizens because of the possible need to increase Ohio Turnpike tolls.”