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Delayed Projects Prompt Highway Anxiety

Ohio highway planners and construction companies face a changed  future. The state Department of Transportation says a shortage of money will delay major projects.   Work on some Central Ohio projects downtown and on the north and southeast sides will be delayed by a decade or more.  ODOT's new construction timetable is causing anxiety for  highway planners and builders. At the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, Transportation Director, Robert Lawler expressed surprise at ODOT's scaled back construction plan. "We had not originally anticipated that." MORPC  dates back to the 1960's when the federal government helped fund regional planning commissions to smooth political infighting among cities, towns and counties over road projects.  The commission prepares a region wide transportation plan every four years.  And, Lawler says that means ODOT and MORP-C  are "joined at the dollar sign." "Any of the projects that ODOT would like to pursue with federal dollars need to show up in that plan before they can become eligible for those federal dollars." Says Lawler. But with federal and state gas tax revenues either falling or stagnant, and inaction by congress on a new highway spending bill,  ODOT says it's short by more than 11 billion dollars for highway projects already planned. A new scaled-back,  long-range transportation plan is due out this spring. So, it's still uncertain whether  planners at MORP-C  or some of  Ohio's highway construction workers will face lay-offs. Contractors face a similar uncertainty. Ohio Contractors Association president, Christopher Runyan says highway engineer and design staffs are put most at risk by ODOT's scaling back. "The design and engineering work for these larger jobs is going to be pushed much further out  into the future and  that type of activity is going to be delayed as well, not just the construction portion of it." Runyan says. " Because you don't want to design something now, you know and you don't know what conditions may change or environmental issues have changed over  the ten or fifteen years they have been pushed out into the future." ODOT is still expected to spend nearly one and half billion dollars this year on highway projects. But, officials say there'll be more maintenance and repaving of existing highways and less major construction. And as construction is reined in, Runyan predicts some smaller contractors will likely become economic casualties as larger firms take on smaller projects. "If it happens anywhere its going to be that smaller and medium size contractor who's just facing a lot more competition because of the larger contractors needing to feed a larger company. " Hearings on a revised regional transportation plan will be scheduled during the next several months. The outlook for contractors and highway engineers should clear up by late May or June.