The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

April 3, 2013

Highway budget bill will impact Ashtabula County

I-90 speed limit, Conneaut tourist center to benefit

Star Beacon

— Motorists this summer will be permitted to travel a little more quickly across Ashtabula County on Interstate 90, but hopefully not before stopping at the information office inside the freeway’s rest area in Conneaut.

Both aspects of I-90 in the area, the legal speed limit and the tourist office, received a boost from the $1.5 billion transportation budget bill signed this week by Gov. John Kasich. The bill raises the speed limit on rural stretches of interstate highways from 65 mph to 70 mph, and also allows the state to use up to $250,000 annually to staff tourist offices located at entry points to the state — like Conneaut’s.

Earlier this year, the Ohio Department of Transportation announced it would be pulling its people from the 10 tourist offices scattered across the state for budget reasons. City, county and tourism officials were upset, saying visitors benefit from having a person on hand to answer questions and promote area attractions.

State Sen. Capri Cafaro, who represents Ashtabula County in Columbus and is also the ranking minority member of the Senate’s transportation committee, arranged language in the budget bill that allows the state to spend up to $250,000 each fiscal year to put state workers in the travel offices on the border of the state. In addition, Ohio’s Department of Public Safety will conduct a study to determine how best to partner with local travel and tourism centers and also study an Ohio Ambassadors volunteer program at rest stops.

The language does not budget the Department of Public Service more money for the travel offices, but instead gives the agency to pull up to $250,000 from its information/education fund for staffing needs.

Cafaro said Tuesday the language is a “compromise” that will keep people in the Conneaut travel office, probably on a part-time or seasonal basis. While the state is not obliged to use money for the office, Cafaro said she is confident Columbus understands the “intent” of the language.

“It’s important to have real people staffing (offices) at our borders,” she said.

Officials in Conneaut and the county who voiced objections deserve credit for salvaging the office, Cafaro said.

“I’m so proud (the amendment) was accepted on the floor of the Senate,” she said. “We listened to their concerns.”

Conneaut Ward 2 Councilman Phil Garcia has championed the tourist office the past several months. He was “very pleased” to learn the office will most likely be staffed

“It was somewhat of a compromise,” he said Tuesday. “I think (visitors) want to be greeted by a face.”

Garcia praised Cafaro and State Rep. John Patterson for their help and concern. “They heard the noise up here,” he said.

The budget bill is also expected to increase the legal speed limit on I-90 across the county, which should fit the definition of a “non-urban interstate.” Steve Faulkner, ODOT spokesman in Columbus, said Tuesday the agency first needs to “take a look at the process and see what constitutes a non-urban interstate.”

When the budget becomes law July 1, the state will be ready with its new speed limit signs, Faulkner said.