Ohio’s $1.6 Billion Highway Budget Shortfall: Where do We Go from Here?
By Jerry Wray
Director of the Ohio Department of Transportation
Ohio’s highways are essential to keeping and creating new jobs. Our state’s economy—especially our agriculture and manufacturing businesses, and the logistics operations that support them—depend on the ability to quickly and efficiently ship raw materials and finished goods throughout Ohio, the country and the world, and our state’s transportation system makes it possible.
This critical economic engine risks running out of gas. Funding for our highways is drying up and is not projected to keep up with our needs. In fact, the state’s highway budget faces a $1.6 billion shortfall, which will force high-priority projects to face serious completion delays.
While the news of the $1.6 billion highway budget shortfall came as a shock to some, it has been expected for several years by those in the transportation community. Unfortunately, little was done about it, assuming the funds would be found before the projected problem became reality. Well, here we stand today and we are facing a massive shortfall. This practice of not being straight about the depth of our highway funding problem is coming to an end. We have to honestly face up to the problem if we’re ever going to fix it and protect the job-creating tool that is our highway system.
The cause of the problem is simple: the recent economic decline combined with more fuel efficient vehicles that use less gas, inflation and a federal stalemate over a long-term, national transportation funding plan has left Ohio—and every other state—in a precarious position. The federal and state motor fuel taxes—Ohio’s primary highway funding source—are not raising as much money as they once did and are unable keep up with the rising costs of construction materials.
Just as Ohio did when we came together last year to close our state’s $8 billion state budget deficit, Ohio must come together to close our highway deficit. The basic reason is simple: we cannot pay highway construction workers with dollars that don’t exist. The bigger reason is, of course, unless we keep our roads in good shape and build new projects that boost job-creation—as well as safety and congestion relief—we won’t foster the jobs-friendly climate Ohio so desperately needs to get back on track.
The shortfall Ohio is facing now is very frustrating, and I’m sure we share the same frustration that every local mayor, county official, legislator, business leader and driver feels.
These problems aren’t insurmountable, not by a longshot. We can move forward and find the funds to keep Ohio moving if we have the courage to think in new ways.
A natural place to start is with ODOT’s own costs. We’re taking every conceivable step to reduce them. We’ve reduced our overhead and are using new ways to more efficiently and effectively build major projects faster than ever before.
Most important, however, is that we’re exploring entirely new strategies for building highways that break with the status quo and reflect a new way of thinking. We’re looking at ideas to utilize money from the private sector. We’re studying the potential of the Ohio Turnpike, and looking at all of the options from moving the operations under ODOT, to bonding against the turnpike’s revenue to a potential lease.
No matter what happens, there will be contractual guidelines on tolls and maintenance that will keep the road as strong as we know it today—or better. I welcome the upcoming debate and want to engage in the conversation with policy-makers at the federal, state and local levels that is long overdue.
Gone is pretending we don’t have a problem. We must take this opportunity to bring leaders to the table and work together to solve this problem.
Without a good transportation system we lose jobs and Ohio fades. By applying the same creative spirit for which Ohio is known, we can solve this problem and keep Ohio moving in the right direction.