COLUMBUS — After two meetings, a committee formed by Gov. Mike DeWine to study options for fixing a shortfall in road construction and maintenance money has come to a consensus that the state gas tax needs to increase.
Ohio’s 28-cents-per-gallon gas tax was last raised in 2005, and the upcoming state transportation budget is expected to contain significantly less money for state and local road paving and maintenance work — and no money for additional major interstate projects — without additional revenue.
Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, a committee member, said voters raised the city’s income tax by 0.25 percent for police, fire and roads, tripling the city’s resurfacing budget.
“We’re trying to play catch-up,” he said. “So any sort of increased transportation funds that comes out of this really will help our infrastructure in and around the city.”
Dean Ringle, also a committee member and executive director of the County Engineers Association of Ohio, said the group agreed that the gas tax “is the most consistent option of providing a good portion of the funds needed. It’s probably not going to take care of everybody.”
The committee, which includes representatives from local government, oil and gas, and road-construction interests, listened to two hours of testimony Wednesday. Most of those who spoke either specifically advocated increasing the gas tax, which is 6 cents below the national average, or generally called for additional road revenue.
Those testifying Wednesday included leaders of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, the Columbus Regional Airport Authority and the Central Ohio Transit Authority.
State Transportation Director Jack Marchbanks said the revenue hole is about $500 million for maintenance, $250 million for safety projects and $250 million for major projects. Each penny increase in the gas tax would raise about $67 million a year.
In testimony Tuesday, Marchbanks warned that the state’s road maintenance and infrastructure projects are facing an “impending crisis” unless more money is generated.
Average Ohio drivers “are going to see their commute routes ride a lot rougher, and they’re going to see more congestion as people slow down because roads are bad,” he told the panel, emphasizing that more focus must be placed on safety. “People swerve to miss potholes, get lost in their lanes.”
Marchbanks said 90 percent of Ohio Department of Transportation road money goes toward maintenance.
“We have had to actually cut back some of the materials and supplies our maintenance crews use,” he said, after telling DeWine’s advisory committee that a $1 billion gap remains in the ODOT budget. “These things are very serious.”
He said ODOT estimates that increasing fees on electric and hybrid vehicles would raise only about $2.5 million per year, while a gas tax increase would raise about $67 million per year.
Gov. John Kasich and lawmakers came up with a short-term funding fix in 2013 when they approved $1.5 billion worth of borrowing against future turnpike tolls. But that short-term money has all been spent or committed.
Marchbanks said ODOT has already cut costs through attrition, operations and asset upkeep. But without new money, he said, the state cannot maintain its current highway system, much less improve on what includes the nation’s fourth-largest interstate system.
“Bordering states are actually pulling our contractors away from us because they have enhanced their revenue packages,” he said.
Marchbanks did not advocate any specific funding source, but he warned against additional borrowing, especially in the short term. He said ODOT already is spending $390 million per year to pay for prior borrowing against future gas tax revenue — essentially current money paying for past projects.
The committee is not yet recommending the size of the gas tax increase, or whether increases should be automatically indexed to inflation. A DeWine staffer is expected to write a committee report next week.
Ringle said there also is recognition that, in the future, alternative funding sources will be needed as more cars move to electric or hybrid engines. “I think everybody agreed a user fee is the fairest. It’s just how that would be implemented.”
DeWine is less than two weeks away from introducing his two-year transportation budget.
Neither House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, nor Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, has ruled out a gas tax increase.
"I told the governor that we would be willing to keep our powder dry and hear them out, and listen to what the facts are and make decisions,” Householder said Wednesday.