Ohio's roads are rated a 'D.' But who will pay to fix them?

Lynn Hulsey, Journal-News, Hamilton, Ohio
·8 min read

Feb. 28—Ohio's 2019 motor fuel tax increase was supposed to boost local and state road and bridge projects, but the COVID-19 pandemic cut travel and, as a result, money for construction projects withered.

That has intensified hopes that Congress will take action.

Earlier this month, Ohio's roads received a D grade and its bridges a C+ in the Ohio Council of the American Society of Civil Engineers' 2021 Report Card for Ohio's Infrastructure.

The report said that 6% of the state's 44,736 bridges and 17% of its nearly 123,000 miles of public roads are in poor condition.

"Congestion in urban areas brings the grade down," said Craig Hebebrand, council president.

Inadequate funding has kept the state and local jurisdictions from keeping up with repairs and capacity expansions in a state that is second in the nation for number of bridges and fourth for total interstate lane miles, according to the report.

Infrastructure investments ripple across the local economy, said Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO.

"When we build roads and bridges, this is major, major investment into working Ohio," Burga said. "And in addition to the manpower hours it takes to do all this work, which is desperately needed, we will also be investing in the domestic content to do the work."

Will Congress approve more transportation funding?

For years, America's infrastructure was the envy of the world, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said during the civil engineering council's news conference Thursday.

"But for too long now, we've failed to invest the necessary resources in our nation's roads, bridges, schools and technology," he said.

Brown said he is ready to work with with President Joe Biden and congressional colleagues on a plan "to invest in our state's infrastructure needs, create jobs for American workers and get our nation moving again."

The last multi-year federal transportation bill expired in September and is now funded under a continuing resolution that expires later this year.

With road and bridge projects planned years in advance, a new multi-year transportation bill with increased funding would allow local jurisdictions to reduce their project backlog, making roads safer and less congested and assist in economic development, said Brian O. Martin, executive director of the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission.

"We would love to have a long-term sustainable funding plan for transportation," said Matt Bruning, press secretary for the Ohio Department of Transportation. "It would certainly help us plan better for the future. Will it happen? Fingers are crossed."

President Biden met Thursday with a bipartisan group of senators to kick off discussions of what he hopes will be a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

"Under the Build Back Better Recovery Plan, we'll invest hundreds of billions of dollars in buying American products and materials to modernize our infrastructure, and our competitive strength will increase in a competitive world," Biden said on Jan. 25. "That means millions of good-paying jobs, using American-made steel and technology, to rebuild our roads, our bridges, our ports."

Brown and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said they will continue working to get more funding for Ohio roads and bridges and Kentucky's Brent Spence Bridge, which carries I-75 and I-71 traffic across the Ohio River in Cincinnati.

"Rob agrees robust investment in rebuilding our nation's infrastructure is needed," said Portman spokeswoman Emmalee Cioffi. "With the upcoming deadline this September to reauthorize federal transportation programs, an infrastructure package can help us generate economic growth, create jobs, and restore our economy at a time when it is needed the most."

How should we pay for construction projects?

State and federal fuel taxes pay for the bulk of roadway and bridge improvements, accounting for about 98 percent of ODOT's revenue, said Lloyd MacAdam, ODOT chief engineer. Local jurisdictions get a cut of the state's fuel tax and may also receive local taxes and motor vehicle registration, license plate and other fees.

The federal fuel tax has not changed since 1993 and is 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel. In 2019 Ohio raised its tax to 38.5 cents for gas and 47 cents for diesel. The state also added a flat annual fee of $200 for electric cars and $100 for hybrids.

"The gas tax helped but it didn't solve all the needs," said Dean Ringle, executive director of the County Engineers Association of Ohio. "For Ohio's counties on average we are probably between $3 million and $4 million short for getting our roads and bridges up to snuff. The needs we have are maintenance and replacement."

Fuel tax revenues came in less than expected after traffic volumes plunged 15 percent last year during the pandemic, leading the state to pause applications for new large projects, ODOT Director John Marchbanks said Tuesday in testimony before the Ohio House finance committee.

Two major projects that were to begin last year, one in Cincinnati and the other in Columbus, were delayed until later this year, said Bruning, but the state was able to keep up on the rest of its work, including whittling down a list of 150 intersections in the state needing safety improvements.

"If we did not have that gas tax increase, we would be a world of hurt in Ohio," Bruning said. "We would have struggled to maintain the existing roadways with the previous tax."

Between March and November 2020, ODOT received $198 million less in fuel tax revenue than anticipated. Local government revenues also fell short, and Marchbanks said officials believe declines will linger.

ODOT's proposed 2022-2023 budget anticipates a fuel tax shortfall of $333 million from what was anticipated before the pandemic, Marchbanks said.

"The motor fuel increase did help our members sustain themselves through this year," said Chris Runyan, president of the Ohio Contractors Association, representing infrastructure construction and related companies. "But there is a real concern over going forward because of the decline in the fuel tax revenue. Much of the 2020 work was already in the works when the pandemic happened."

Statewide counties, municipalities and townships received nearly $878 million in fuel tax revenue in 2020, with nearly $104 million coming to jurisdictions in the nine local counties.

All counties got the same amount, $3.6 million. Hamilton, which received $2.86 million, was next highest in Butler County.

Why federal money is key

While some call for Congress to raise the federal fuel tax, U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, the Republican who represents Warren County, said it's better to raise it in Ohio because all the money stays in the state.

"Ohio drivers will pay the same price at the pump regardless of whether the state or the federal government increases gas taxes," Chabot said.

In fiscal year 2018 federal funds covered 45 percent of Ohio's $2.2 billion in highway improvement costs, according to Federal Highway Administration data analyzed by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

The federal funds filter down through ODOT to counties, municipalities and townships.

In state fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30, ODOT spent $281.5 million in Butler, Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Miami, Montgomery, Preble and Warren counties, according to ODOT data analyzed by the Journal-News. That's down from $340.25 million in 2011.

The massive I-75 rebuild through Dayton was federally funded, as is the Third St. bridge currently being rebuilt in downtown Dayton. The feds also helped with the bridges on Ridge Avenue, Harshman Road and Keowee Street, widening Austin Boulevard, Miamisburg-Springboro Road and Yankee Street and construction of the upcoming roundabout at Mad River and Alex Bell roads.

Other ongoing projects funded in part by federal money include the $43 million widening of I-70 in Clark County, the $14 million project widening U.S. 40 near the Dayton International Airport, a $15 million U.S. 35 superstreet construction project between Factory Road and Orchard Lane in Greene County and a $2.6 million roundabout under construction at the deadly Butler County intersection of Ohio 73 and Jacksonburg Road.

"We've fared pretty well," Martin said.

The state of Ohio's roads and bridges

The federal government inventories bridges over 20 feet long. Ohio has 27,167 such bridges, and 1,457 (5.4 percent) of them are classified structurally deficient, according to an American Road and Transportation Builders Association analysis of the federal 2019 Federal Highway Administration's National Bridge Inventory Data.

A bridge is deemed structurally deficient when one or more key components — the deck, superstructure or substructure — is in poor or worse condition.

Ohio has made progress on fixing these bridges, down from 1,869 structurally deficient bridges in 2015, according to the trade association.

The American Society of Civil Engineers Ohio report card dealt with a broader group of the state's bridges, including those less than 20 feet long, and the state's roadways.

"It's important to note that this report looked at all the state's roads and bridges, not just those maintained by ODOT," Bruning said. "We have aggressively maintained the state and U.S. routes outside municipalities and all interstates and the more than 14,000 bridges under our watch."

Since the majority of the state's roads and bridges are maintained by local entities the state has several programs to assist with funding or technical expertise, he said.

Roadway congestion in urban areas is part of what drove down the grade for Ohio.

The Miami Valley planning commission just approved its 2050 Long Range Congestion Management Projects, which consists of 212 projects in its four-county region that would cost an estimated $1.59 billion to complete.

But allowing roads to remain congested has a cost as well. Congestion costs Ohioans an estimated $4.7 billion annually in lost time and wasted fuel, according to the civil engineers' report card.

"If the new administration champions an infrastructure stimulus package, our region will have projects ready to go," Kershner said. "Conversations are already happening."