Ohio’s official unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level in 13 years after employers added naerly 18,000 jobs in November.
The State Of ODOT
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The state’s transportation agency has big financial problems, but its leaders say they’re pushing forward plans to deal with it.
They outlined those steps in a first-of-its-kind presentation on Tuesday.
Itâ€™s not news that the Ohio Department of Transportation is in financial trouble. But when ODOT director Jerry Wray goes over the numbers, they can be surprising.
“There is a $1.6 billion funding shortfall for construction projects â€“ those are projects that have been vetted through the process, ready to go to construction, and we donâ€™t have enough money to build them. Plus, thereâ€™s another $10 billion worth of projects, future projects that are in the development process for which there is no money,” Wray says.
And Wray says that means some of these projects will be delayed years or decades if the situation doesnâ€™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 ODOTâ€™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 â€“ 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 itâ€™s wringing out more savings by evaluating whether aging heavy construction equipment needs to be replaced, finding efficiencies in existing projects, and reducing ODOTâ€™s vehicle fleet by 40 percent.
And Murphy also talked up other plans to raise money â€“ such as creating sponsored service plazas or naming rights for bridges, interchanges and the stateâ€™s 104 rest areas.
“Interstate rest areas could be sponsored by Pepsi, or Coca-Cola, or whatnot,” Murphy said.
“We could receive not only the revenue â€“ 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. Director Wray has repeatedly said that raising taxes isnâ€™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.
“Well, I think it deserves further study. Iâ€™m not opposed to it on its face. Weâ€™ve got to look at all those things because weâ€™re in a crucial period.
“Weâ€™ve got to balance what these projects that are going forward â€“ 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 donâ€™t have a lot of disposable income in their wallets.”
And agreeing with him is Rep. Rex Damschroder, a Republican from Fremont.
“I want good highways to drive my car on. So yeah â€“ Iâ€™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.
Reporter: But the director has said there is no real appetite for any sort of tax increase.
Damschroder: “Oh, I think heâ€™s absolutely correct. Thereâ€™s no appetite for real tax increase, but still â€“ this is more a user fee. You donâ€™t have to drive a car. You can do whatever you want. You donâ€™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 thatâ€™s not going to happen, says Wray.
â€œNo. Not at all,” Wray says abruptly when asked about the possibility. “Itâ€™s not something weâ€™re considering. Weâ€™re looking at taking care of business at home and making sure that weâ€™re providing as many and as positive results as we can with the resources we have.”
The panel that makes the decisions on ODOTâ€™s construction projects and when they will be built meets for a final vote next week.