State’s roadwork delay will cost drivers

The Columbus Dispatch
by Robert Vitale

State government will spend less money in the short term by taking four times as long to rebuild overburdened highways in central Ohio.

You, however, will pay. Drivers will lose more time, waste more gas and face more hazards in coming years because the Ohio Department of Transportation is pushing back more than $840 million in roadwork that’s scheduled for the region.

What ODOT had planned to tackle between 2014 and 2016   now is to start in 2019 and at dates as far     off as 2033.

Agency leaders say their list of major projects statewide is $11.6 billion too big for upcoming budgets, and they’ve ruled out raising Ohio’s gasoline tax of 28 cents per gallon to keep work on track.

The delays will cost Ohioans in other ways, experts say.

A study last year by TRIP, a transportation-research group based in Washington, D.C., estimated that Columbus-area drivers already spend an extra $835 a year because of inadequate roads. Almost $400 of that additional cost is the gas burned while stuck in traffic.

Central Ohioans waste twice as many hours in rush-hour backups as they did 20 years ago, another 2011 report said.

It is to be an additional 21 years before ODOT gets to the last scheduled phase of rebuilding the I-70/71 corridor through Downtown, if the agency’s Transportation Review Advisory Council approves the delays this spring.

Robert Lawler, transportation director for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, said that will cost us, our businesses and the regional economy.

ODOT planned to rebuild Downtown highways because they handle twice as much traffic as they were engineered for and average more than two crashes per day. By the time future phases begin, traffic between the I-71/670 interchange and the I-70/71 split on the southwestern edge of Downtown will increase 21 percent or more, according to MORPC projections.

“We’re going to see more crashes and more delays,”   Lawler said. “It’s an issue of capacity, but it’s also an issue of safety.”

It’s an issue around the country, too.

A congressional commission estimated in 2009 that state, local and federal governments spent less than half what was needed to maintain the nation’s transportation infrastructure and about a third of what it would take to improve it.

“When you have a system that’s 40 to 50 years old, it pretty much needs to be replaced,” said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “There’s a huge backlog of replacement, maintenance and repairs that need to be done.”

However, ODOT Director Jerry Wray said past administrations in Ohio have promised too much.

ODOT placed $318 million in work on the calendar and put $2.4 billion in projects   into the planning pipeline in 1997. By last year, $862 million in work was ready to go, and $10.2 billion was planned.

Wray said the state can afford just $100 million a year for major projects. He vowed to continue road maintenance, though.

How did ODOT get in such a bind? In the middle of the last decade, state officials and national experts say, trends began to turn bad.

“We were quite open about over-programming,” said Gordon Proctor, who ran ODOT from 1999 to 2007 under then-Gov. Bob Taft.

Projects are planned as much as a decade in advance, so estimates of the income needed to pay for them must be made well ahead of time, too, Proctor said. That makes over-programming necessary, in case more money becomes available than expected, and it makes delays part of the   process.

Even as Wray criticized past planning, ODOT’s policy still is to pencil in up to 35 percent more construction spending than its budget allows.

Ohio pays for the work with the state gas taxes that drivers pay and with money that comes from Washington through the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. As gas prices jumped and the economy declined in 2008, Americans bought less fuel. Gas-tax collections fell, and they haven’t recovered, in part because people also are buying more fuel-efficient vehicles.

In 2006, construction costs spiked 12 percent because of increasing demand for materials in China and India. Congress passed its last reauthorization of a federal highway-spending bill in 2005, and funding levels are frozen because lawmakers can’t agree on an update.

Governors and legislators   in only a few states have broached the subject of raising gas taxes, said Horsley, of the transportation officials’ organization. Ohio’s last increase was approved in 2003.

No one is much in the mood to spend more, either, he said. In Washington, “you almost get thrown out of the room” when you bring up the gap between highway spending and infrastructure needs.

State Rep. Ross McGregor, R-Springfield, handles transportation-funding issues at the Statehouse for the House Finance and Appropriations Committee. He agrees with Gov. John Kasich’s call for the state to explore partnerships with private road builders and to consider using tolls for some new projects.

He also said that Ohio needs to join the discussion — after this election year is over, most likely — about finding ways other than the gas tax to pay for roadwork.


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