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What's Next For ODOT?

Ohio’s transportation experts are saying the news that the Ohio Department of Transportation is broke was no secret, but the decision to delay some projects is a big deal. Now, the discussion moves to how to fix the problem. More specifically: where to find more money. "People don’t like orange barrels, but they get mad when they don’t get them," says ODOT director Jerry Wray about the sense he's getting in the wake of his announcement that the departmetn is running on empty financially, and will have to delay some major construction projects, including pushing back some of the biggest ones for as long as two decades. The crisis comes from falling gas tax revenue, rising construction costs, and the numbers of so-called mega projects costing over $100 million. Wray says no current projects have been cancelled, even though the department is overcommitted by billions of dollars to projects already in process. "That is not a priority list, that’s not a list where we’re picking one project over another. It’s a funding list. And by that I mean – we look at the development of the project and the controlling factor is when would we have enough money based on our current revenue to sell it and pay for it." This news wasn’t any surprise to a think tank that studies transportation issues in Ohio. "We’ve been talking about this since October of 2005," says Gene Krebs, a former state representative who now heads Greater Ohio. He estimates a nearly $4 billion deficit for ODOT by 2017. The department is funded by state and federal gas taxes. By his math, factoring in standards for more efficient cars and inflation, ODOT will lose seven percent of its purchasing power every year. So, Krebs says, ifthe solution were to hike the gas tax, it would have to go up two cents every year. "By the way that’s two pennies a year forever. If you want to go ahead and start fixing all of our crumbling bridges and the backlog, that’s nine pennies a year for the very long foreseeable future. So we’re not going to be able to tax our way out of this." Wray admits there isn’t much of an appetite to raise the gas tax -- U.S. Senator George Voinovich talked about that his way out of office in 2010, and was criticized for it. Wray says that means other solutions – including privatization. "We’re interested in privatizing some of our rest areas – that way we can turn something that is currently costing us money perhaps into revenue. Obviously we’re considering what we might be able to do to leverage the turnpike." And Wray says ODOT will be "aggressive in investigating public-private partnerships." Krebs says he’s confident the state won’t rush into a turnpike deal just to deal with the current financial crisis, but he’s pleased to hear the discussion on what to do start now. Otherwise, he says, the future is bleak. "It’s only going to get worse. As bad as you think this is now – and we’ve been saying this also since 2005 – as people trade in Hummers for Hondas, it’s going to simply accelerate." And Krebs notes advances touted by the auto industry and embraced by drivers – such as all-electric vehicles and those which run on compressed natural gas – also chip away at the financial solvency of the agency that fixes and builds the roads those cars run on.