Jack Marchbanks was helpfully blunt in his assessment. The new director of the Ohio Department of Transportation used the phrases “an impending crisis,” “a fiscal cliff” and “a dangerous state of disrepair” to describe the problems in funding the state’s network of roads, bridges and highways. He did so on Tuesday in testimony at the first meeting of the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Dan Horrigan, the Akron mayor, one of the members.
Gov. Mike DeWine formed the panel as a way to start a conversation about the best way forward for the state. By Wednesday at its second meeting, the committee had gotten the Marchbanks message. It recommended an increase in the state gas tax, a logical and responsible course. The new governor must unveil a transportation budget next month.
Marchbanks provided an overview of what he rightly labeled “the state’s most valuable physical asset.” The state has the fourth largest interstate system, the second largest inventory of bridges and the sixth largest number of vehicle miles traveled. What the director made clear is that Ohio currently faces the prospect, starting July 1, of having “no revenue available for any new highway improvement projects of any kind in any place in our system.”
What happened? Marchbanks cited something of a “perfect storm,” a confluence of events that has left the state in need of a quick and substantial response. For starters, the state gas tax, now 28 cents per gallon and last increased 6 cents in three phases ending in 2005, is inadequate to the task. Marchbanks noted a dollar then is worth 58 cents today. Add to the mix increased fuel efficiency (a good thing), and gas tax revenues have not kept pace with the wear and tear of the motorists on the road.
John Kasich provided a short-term answer when he borrowed against Ohio Turnpike revenues. The trouble is that $1.5 billion now has been spent or committed. More, the idea wasn’t as clever as Kasich claimed. It fit into a pattern, going back three administrations, of borrowing against future gas tax revenues to cover immediate transportation needs. Marchbanks explained that as a result, before the state spends any gas tax money, it pays $390 million a year to service the debt.
In short, Ohio has more maintenance work on its transportation system than revenue to pay for it, the gap an estimated $500 million. Marchbanks showed how the state already has pushed back roughly $150 million in maintenance scheduled for the next fiscal year. Such delays risk deterioration and diminish safety. Marchbanks pointed out that when road conditions decline 25 percent, crashes double. Then, there is the factor of poor roads and bridges making the state less competitive.
As it is, Ohio has one of the lowest gas taxes among neighboring states, with Pennsylvania, for instance, at 58.7 cents per gallon, Michigan at 44.1 cents, and Indiana, 42.9. A broad coalition of businesses, local governments and transportation groups, under the banner Fix Our Roads Ohio, has mobilized to support a gas tax increase.
No doubt, a federal public works initiative would be welcome, but it isn't likely. There are alternative revenue sources, such as fees on electric cars. Yet they are more forward-looking, about an evolving auto industry, or hardly a significant revenue stream for now. The necessary fiscal muscle still resides in the gas tax. Which as a user fee also is straightforward. Next is the hard part, taking what Jack Marchbanks explained and the governor’s advisory committee endorsed, and shaping the pieces into an actual proposal MIke DeWine can get a majority of state lawmakers to back.