ODOT changes will affect many projects

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A seemingly routine business plan filed last week with the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review (JCARR) has implications for anyone who drives and many of the major roads they travel.

Last week the Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jim Beasley released his 2008-2009 Business Plan. It paints a troubling picture of flat revenues and increasing expenses that will result in significant changes in how the state agency responsible for overseeing the maintenance, construction and funding of major roads will operate.

Director Beasley outlined the proposal for me several days in advance of its formal release. He and other administration officials contacted key legislators, especially those on JCARR where their plans will be presented. I am vice-chairman of that committee.

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The agency wants to shift funding away from new road projects toward maintenance of existing roads and bridges.

ODOT spokesman Scott Varner said the previous administration responded to rapidly rising inflation costs by cutting the money for core roadway and bridge maintenance projects rather than reducing funds for proposed construction projects, according to Gongwer.

Last year the Transportation Review and Advisory Council (TRAC) approved major new projects that would cost 47 percent more than the projected funding available. That is done in part because some of the approved projects never get built.

Revenues are flat from both state and federal sources. Ohio taxes gasoline by the gallon rather than as a percentage of the cost of a gallon of fuel. So even though gasoline prices we pay at the pump are higher, that does not mean more revenue for the state. And as newer cars get more miles per gallon, state revenues remain flat or fall.

Besides reprioritizing funding for projects costing more than $5 million within the TRAC process, ODOT plans to refocus more funding toward smaller maintenance projects that aren’t subject to approval by the panel, according to Varner.

The agency was critical of an amendment legislators added to the two-year $7.8 billion transportation budget last spring, which prohibits the agency from starting any new highway project until construction commences on projects TRAC previously approved.

The business plan says the measure constrains ODOT’s “flexibility to adjust construction projects — based on delays caused by environmental, right-of-way, or community-related issues — without threatening potential future projects.”

I remember that amendment well. I was the only senator to speak out against it on the Senate floor this spring after Beasley told me it would be problematic. No one else spoke up. As I recall everyone voted for the bill.

The governor’s failure to veto that provision was even more puzzling. That was the administration’s last chance to remove that onerous provision.

It will not take long for these changes proposed by ODOT to affect a construction project near you.

Tom Niehaus is a member of the Ohio Senate and represents the 14th District.