COLUMBUS —Despite more dire warnings from the state transportation director that failing to increase the state gas tax beyond the 10.7 cents-a-gallon approved by the House would stall major infrastructure projects, Senate Republican leaders say they are eyeing a smaller tax increase.
Majority Senate Republicans and Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration disagree over how much additional money is needed to maintain and improve Ohio’s roads and bridges. DeWine continues to insist that a rate of 18 cents is needed to complete a backlog of work and bring Ohio’s transportation system into good condition within the next decade.
But Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, says the Senate’s proposal will be lower than the House-passed tax increase.
And the tripling of public transit funding to $100 million per year? That’s not happening either.
“I don’t think it’s incumbent on this General Assembly to solve all the infrastructure problems past, present and future,” said Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark. “I think we’re trying to find a comfort zone where we are addressing what we need to address, but it probably doesn’t atone for all the shortcomings in the past or future.”
The House’s 10.7-cent increase would raise about $1.1 billion in additional revenue over the next two years, compared to $2.5 billion in DeWine’s plan. Jack Marchbanks, the state transportation director, told senators this week the House version “does not even cover our basic maintenance needs, and there is still essentially no additional revenue to make any improvements of any kind in any place on the system.”
Marchbanks added: “A status quo budget is a stand-still budget. A state that stands still falls behind.”
That, he said, means a number of major construction projects that are awaiting funding would be put on hold.
Raising the state gas tax from 28 cents to 46 cents a gallon, Marchbanks said, would provide $535 million over the next two years to jump-start several major projects, while providing an average of $150 million per year for the next nine years.
Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said two-thirds of the new money the Ohio Department of Transportation wants would go for new interstate projects or safety initiatives.
“We as the Senate fully believe we’ve invested an awful lot of money … in new construction,” McColley said, noting that includes more than $100 million per year on safety upgrades.
“That’s a policy decision we have to make,” McColley added. “To what extent do we want to fund major new construction? Or to what extent are we also going back to ODOT and the administration and say this is your budget, you have enough money to maintain the existing system of roadways, and we’re going to rely on you to generate cost savings in order to help pay for some of this new construction you’d like to complete?”
A Senate vote on the transportation budget is expected next week.
McColley said there is a “strong possibility” the Senate will reduce the $100 million for public transit, which may be dealt with more in the two-year operating budget DeWine will introduce Friday.
Public transit makes a compelling case for more money, McColley said, “but at the same time, we have finite resources. I think the priority of the legislature should be maintaining our existing roads and bridges.”