How did Mike DeWine get to 18 cents? That is the amount the governor proposes to increase the state gas tax, or the motor fuel user fee, adding to the current 28 cents per gallon. It is helpful to follow his thinking, especially in view of the Ohio House approving an increase of 10.7 cents, and the Republican leadership in the state Senate talking about going with even less.

During his visit to our offices last week, the governor pulled out a chart. It tells the story of what he wants to achieve through a higher gas tax, costing the typical motorist around $100 per year. First, he seeks to maintain the status quo in operations and maintenance, the state keeping pace with what it has been doing.

Second, he gives priority to safety, addressing roadways deemed more dangerous, or where crashes are more likely. The state Department of Transportation has identified an initial 150 locations across the state.

Third, the governor proposes addressing “major new improvements” identified by the state Transportation Review Advisory Council. This body has the task of aiding in strategic planning. It sets priorities for such things as enhancing interchanges and adding lanes. This isn’t about adding new roads. It involves making the system better.

The TRAC canceled its 2019 meeting due to the lack of funding.

The governor asked: What kind of commitment has the state made to TRAC projects over the years? His plan aligns with past spending levels.

Tally the expense of those three priorities, and the sum is an estimated $1.2 billion a year, or what an additional 18 cents would generate.

No doubt, there is room to differ. Why not 75 safety-related projects instead of 150? How about fewer TRAC-identified improvements?

Worth examining is just how short the House version would fall. Consider those safety projects. The House plan commits $90 million, covering 2021 and 2022. The governor calls for roughly $2.6 billion through 2030. The House makes nothing available for the TRAC improvements — not a single project going forward during the next decade.

For operations and maintenance, the House sees the state losing ground to the status quo. By 2030, it would invest $1.5 billion less overall than the governor proposes. That translates to the roads and bridges getting worse. And the Senate appears inclined to favor a larger shortfall.

What some in the Republican majorities may find unnerving is the governor, one of their own, pitching his gas tax increase as boosting the state’s competitiveness. As he told us last week, “Is this state going to move forward or is this state not going to move forward? Are we going to muddle along doing the minimal we can do and just think that’s OK?” He describes the gas tax as supporting the “blocking and tackling” required to the lay the foundation for a strong economy.

“You can’t do the other things you want to do and expect to see results, if you don’t do this,” he added.

In Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer won the governor’s race last fall with a pledge to “fix the damn roads.” She has proposed adding 45 cents to the current 44-cent gas tax. A recent Crain’s Detroit Business article offered a clue about why. The chief executive of a leading real estate investment firm, based in Ann Arbor, told the reporter, “Quite frankly, there comes a point where what passes for roads is going to obstruct economic development.”

That was the message in a letter sent last week by the Fix Our Roads Ohio Coalition to Larry Obhof, the Senate president. This broad coalition of businesses, local governments, transportation and economic development organizations made the case for all 18 cents. It stressed the significance of transportation to the state economy (fourth-largest interstate highway system, third-largest freight volume, 2.4 million jobs) and a hard truth: This problem isn’t going away

John Kasich and lawmakers played again to the short term when they borrowed against Ohio Turnpike toll revenue. Now that money has been spent. In the same way, an inadequate increase in the gas tax means the question soon will return to the Statehouse. Better, the coalition argues, to do something sustained, taking a position that would seem to win favor: We’re the ones who fixed the roads!

 

Douglas is the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com editorial page editor. He can be reached at mdouglas@thebeaconjournal.com.