Larry Obhof appears convinced that Mike DeWine is making it up. On Monday, the Ohio Senate president told reporters that the increase in the state gas tax his chamber would support “is likely to be less” than the amount the House approved last week. That means the Senate would accept something below 10.7 cents per gallon, or far from the increase of 18 cents proposed by the governor. The Medina Republican made his comment on the same day Jack Marchbanks, the director of the state transportation department, explained to a Senate committee that the House version “falls far short of Ohio’s real need.”
The governor hardly could have been more emphatic in his recent State of the State.address. He called his plan to generate $1.2 billion a year for roads and bridges the “bare minimum.” He argued, “Anything less will mean either our roads won’t be kept up, or no new projects will get done or safety projects will not get done.”
Marchbanks has been making the more detailed case to lawmakers. It includes a reminder about the state system, with the second-largest inventory of bridges, the third-largest freight volume, the fourth-largest interstate highway system (in lane miles) and the sixth-largest in total vehicle miles traveled. Transportation is crucial to the state economy. The governor and the director have stressed the obvious: The sector’s sound performance requires adequate support for maintenance and improvement.
That support hasn’t been there in recent years. Thus, according to the TRIP transportation research group, nearly one-third of the state’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition. Roughly 1,650 bridges are structurally deficient. County engineers report they have just 40 percent of the funds needed to maintain local roads and bridges.
Consider the decline in capital funding for the transportation department, from $2.4 billion in 2014 to a projected $1.7 billion for the coming year. One analysis compares the impact of the two levels of investment during the next decade. No surprise the larger sum resulted in more economic activity, including an additional 8,700 jobs with $420 million per year in earnings. That helps to explain why many Republicans and Democrats tout the value of public works.
Then there is the element of safety. The director and the governor stress that when roads deteriorate 25 percent, crashes double. A decline of 60 percent translates to crashes increasing tenfold.
Ohio last raised its gas tax, or motor fuel user fee, in 2005, adding 6 cents during three years. Rather than confront squarely the problem of inadequate revenue, Larry Obhof and colleagues joined John Kasich in a gimmick. They borrowed against Ohio Turnpike revenues. That patched things for a time. Now the money has been spent, and the gaping hole stands exposed.
How gaping? Jack Marchbanks told the Senate hearing, the transportation department’s needs analysis puts the sum at $2.84 billion for maintenance and operations in 2020. He noted that “does not leave any room for any additional improvements of any kind.”
So the governor isn’t overreaching in his request, or making up some crisis. Neither is he standing alone. The Fix Our Roads Ohio Coalition includes mayors and county officials, chambers of commerce, truckers and manufacturers, regional economic development and transportation organizations from across the state. The coalition sees the need for more than the House approved, not to mention the level Obhof suggested.
Actually, the governor has done something refreshing. He has sized up a problem and proposed a straightforward and effective response for the longer term. In doing so, he deserves better than a legislative leader pretending he doesn’t see the problem for what it is.