Long-term funding issues remain as Senate moves $7.8B transportation budget

The Ohio Senate today approved a new two-year, $7.8 billion transportation budget that directs more funding for public transit and local projects, but still lacks a long-term plan for funding growing transportation needs in a state that touts logistics as a core economic strength.

The concerns are real, said Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley, chairman of the Transportation Committee. They include: Ohio’s 28-cent motor fuel tax is inadequate for Ohio’s ongoing infrastructure costs, money needs to be spent more wisely, and drivers of alternative-fuel vehicles, such as natural gas and electric, are not paying a fair share.

Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark, generally praised but the budget but noted he has “some disappointment in the lack of a longer-term plan for maintaining the vast infrastructure we have in Ohio.”

“It’s going to be incumbent upon this committee in the near future to find a long-term funding mechanism.”

Sen. Charleta B. Tavares, D-Columbus, agreed that the state needs a closer examination of funding amounts, fairness and expanding multi-modal transportation.

“We’ve got to take a look at rail,” she said. “We can’t continue to believe the only way to get to and from is a mobile vehicle.”

Gov. John Kasich proposed a new tax on compressed natural gas, but House Republicans stripped it from the budget. Senate Republicans discussed a proposal by Sen. Bill Coley, R-West Chester, to increase the cost of a vehicle registration to $140, but then allow registrants to be exempted from the state fuel tax. Leaders said it needed more vetting.

LaRose said he recognizes the need for a more holistic look at state transportation funding, but that was not something his committee could accomplish in the month it had to work on the budget.

“This requires months if not years of study,” he said. “We’re blessed geographically to be in a location where Ohio can thrive in the field of logistics. But that doesn’t just mean trucks. It’s not just add another lane, add another lane. There are smarter ways to get more out of the system we have.”

The Senate unanimously approved the transportation budget Wednesday, and the House sent it to a joint conference committee, where the chambers will work out their differences next week.

Before passage today, the Senate made additional budget changes. They include:

–Allowing the state registrar to increase deputy registrar fees, but it must be between the current $3.50 and $5.25.

The House-passed bill just set the fee at $5.25, and LaRose said there was “great debate” in the GOP caucus on what to do about a fee that hasn’t increased since 2004.

“Some recognize the need for the fee increase but don’t be the ones who make that decision,” LaRose said. “There was not adequate support in the caucus to do the fee increase, so we sent it off to the expert, the registrar.”

–Diverts $30 million of the $71 million Ohio got from the Volkswagen emissions settlement to pay for upgrades to public transit vehicles.

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