State Regulators Approve Highway Project Delays

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Despite being one of the major dangerous interchanges in the state, ODOT administrators say a statewide funding shortfall will delay a planned overhaul of the I-70/I-71 interchange in downtown Columbus by as much as 17 years.(Photo: Flickr)
Despite being one of the major dangerous interchanges in the state, ODOT administrators say a statewide funding shortfall will delay a planned overhaul of the I-70/I-71 interchange in downtown Columbus by as much as 17 years.(Photo: Flickr)

A transportation agency panel has voted unanimously to push back some major road work projects for years – and in some cases, decades – because there isn’t enough money to finish them.

But the vote does not mean the issue is going away.

The vote from the nine-member Transportation Review Advisory Council, or TRAC, was unanimous. It approves the draft of a list to delay 34 road work projects across the state for at least a few years for some.

Two projects – part of the innerbelt bridge rebuild in downtown Cleveland and an interchange on Route 33 in central Ohio – will have to wait till 2036.

ODOT director Jerry Wray says it’s the result of falling gas tax revenues with no new federal funds – while new projects were still being approved.

“And we haven’t for a number of years said ‘no’ to any of them, so we keep piling on. So you’ve got stagnant funding, inflation, and lots more projects. You don’t have enough money to pay for them,” Wray said.

Kasler: “Why didn’t you say ‘no’ a couple years ago if this was in the works?”

Wray: “I wasn’t here a couple of years ago.”

Because road projects take years to develop, design and build, Wray says it’s routine for ODOT to okay projects it doesn’t have the money for at the time it was approved. But Wray says he doesn’t want to be critical of previous panels, saying that they may not have had all the financial information that he’s disclosed to this TRAC group.

But House Minority Leader Armond Budish of suburban Cleveland isn’t satisfied with that answer.

“That doesn’t explain the change in the dollars being spent over the last many years at $250 or $300 million a year for new roads and bridges and all of a sudden there’s a catastrophic fall off in the amount of money to spend. They haven’t explained why,” Budish said.

Budish says northeast Ohio pays more in gas tax, and isn’t getting a return on that money. And he says he’s still suspicious that the Ohio Turnpike, which runs through northeast Ohio, is a pawn in a money game.

“The question has to be’Are they moving money around in order to cut the construction budget for new roads and bridges to create a crisis to justify their sale of the Turnpike that’s coming up?’ I don’t know if that’s the case, but we’ve asked a lot of questions, and so far have not gotten answers.”

Wray says the ODOT’s financial situation would be the same whether the Turnpike was available to be leased or not.

But Wray says ODOT will do what it can to find more money to get projects back on the schedule.

One idea, he says, is to privatize rest areas alongside Ohio’s highways, which currently cost the state about 40 million dollars a year to maintain.

“My vision is that we would literally bulldoze them, what’s currently there, have so many acres of land available and we would have the private sector come in and put their stores in. And we would have requirements – they would have to have restrooms, they have mow, they have to take care of things, but we are trying to turn what is currently an expense into a revenue.”

Wray says the state will also likely look at other ideas, such as fees on trucks and license plates.

But Wray says one thing is off the table.

“Nobody’s interested in raising the gas tax, and from what I can tell that includes not only at the state level or appears to be at the federal level.”

And Wray says the hope is that ODOT can solve this internally without raising money from taxpayers and drivers. A

nd there’s another chance for those who are unhappy about the delays to be heard. ODOT has opened up a 45 day public comment period. It’s accepting written comments at the TRAC website at ODOT’s Columbus office on West Broad Street.

The agency may also hold public hearings before a final vote later this year.

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