The state's transportation agency has big financial problems, but its leaders say they're pushing forward plans to deal with it, and outlined those steps in a first-of-its-kind presentation. Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler was there for the "State of ODOT" speech.
It’s not news that the Ohio Department of Transportation is in financial trouble. But when ODOT Director Jerry Wray goes over the numbers, they may not be new, but they can be surprising.
WRAY: "There is a $1.6 billion funding shortfall for construction projects – those are projects that have been vetted through the process, ready to go to construction, and we don’t have enough money to build them. Plus, there’s another $10 billion worth of projects, future projects that are in the development process for which there is no money.”
And Wray says that means some of these projects will be delayed years or decades if the situation doesn’t change. Wray continues to blame an economic decline combined with more fuel efficient vehicles that use less gas, along with inflation and a stalemate over long-term national transportation funding plan for ODOT’s fiscal crisis. But he says several steps have been taken to try to close the gap and push up those now-delayed construction projects.
ODOT Chief of Staff Greg Murphy says the agency is evaluating operations at all levels – for instance, stopping the policy of carrying over money from one budget year to another. The agency has also trimmed its payroll by 400 employees through attrition, saving $34 million a year. And it’s wringing out more savings by evaluating whether aging heavy construction equipment needs to be replaced, finding efficiencies in existing projects, and reducing ODOT’s vehicle fleet by 40 percent.
Murphy also talked up other plans to raise money – such as creating sponsored service plazas or naming rights for bridges, interchanges and the state’s 104 rest areas.
MURPHY: "Interstate rest areas could be sponsored by Pepsi or Coca-Cola or whatnot. We could receive not only the revenue – receive revenue, but not only we could receive the money to offset the cleaning and maintenance of those programs. We expect to generate millions of dollars in this area.”
But there was no mention of an increase in any taxes related to transportation in the state of ODOT speech. Wray has repeatedly said that raising taxes isn’t an option, but it is something some of the lawmakers in the audience for the speech would consider. Sen. Eric Kearney is a Democrat from Cincinnati, which has big projects on the potentially delayed list.
KEARNEY: "Well, I think it deserves further study. I’m not opposed to it on its face. We’ve got to look at all those things because we’re in a crucial period. We’ve got to balance what these projects that are going forward – the economic benefit, the creation of jobs, the expansion of our community and our state, with some of the economic realities, one being gas prices are far too high or higher than we want them to be, and the economic reality that people don’t have a lot of disposable income in their wallets.
And agreeing with him is Rep. Rex Damschroder, a Republican from Fremont.
DAMSCHRODER: "I want good highways to drive my car on. So yeah – I’m probably a Republican who would actually raise the gas tax if that was necessary to have a better highway, because I want a better highway. (Kasler: But the director has said there is no real appetite for any sort of tax increase.) Oh, I think he’s absolutely correct. There’s no appetite for real tax increase, but still – this is more a user fee. You don’t have to drive a car. You can do whatever you want. You don’t have to use this. But if you want good roads to drive on in the state of Ohio, somebody has to pay for it.”
But that’s not going to happen, says Wray.
WRAY: "No. (Kasler: Not at all.) Not at all. (Kasler: Even though there apparently appears to be some interest by some lawmakers, it’s not something you’re even considering.) It’s not something we’re considering. We’re looking at taking care of business at home and making sure that we’re providing as many and as positive results as we can with the resources we have.”
The panel that makes the decisions on ODOT’s construction projects and when they will be built meets for a final vote next week.