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ODOT Moves Up Some Projects, But Delays And Frustration Remain

Communities around the state were shocked in January when an ODOT panel released a list of major road construction projects that could be delayed by months or even decades, thanks to a $1.6 billion deficit in ODOT’s construction budget. Since then, ODOT has been trimming staff, changing policies, asking for cost-savings on projects and trying to find new revenue from privatization of rest areas and naming rights for bridges to plug that huge hole. ODOT’s assistant director Greg Murphy says so far, the changes have added up to $200 million dollars that will be put into ODOT’s construction program next year, and $90 million in each of the next four years. "That enables us to move Tier 1 projects from construction from anywhere from one year earlier to seven years earlier. "But as you will see as you look at the list, we still have a problem. We still have a huge gap. Some projects are still delayed out into 2031," Murphy said. Tier 1 projects are the big highway demolitions and rebuilds, relocations and widenings, and new interchanges and bypasses. Many of these – such as the innerbelt bridge project in Cleveland, the upgrade of I-75 in Dayton and Cincinnati, and the work on I-70 and I-71 and on I-270 around Route 315 and Route 23 in Columbus – are huge multi-year projects. In the January draft list, some projects were pushed out till 2036. ODOT director Jerry Wray says moving them forward by up to seven years is good news, but he knows it’s not enough for some. "I think it’s an improvement. We’re making progress in trying to close the gap. But expectations are higher than what we were able to announce today." Communities have been protesting the delays, saying they’re counting on these big projects to spur economic development, to improve safety and to relieve traffic congestion. And Wray says while the wait on some of these projects is shortened, he knows it may not be short enough for some. But he says the goal is to be honest about the financial pothole ODOT is peering into. "What we stated in January was factual, and it was a snapshot of how things were at that point. And what we’ve done today is factual and how things are at this point. "It’s better than it was in January but not as good as we’d like it to be." With so many high-profile projects still delayed, it may come as a surprise that ODOT will start accepting applications for new projects next month. But ODOT’s Jennifer Townley says the members of the panel that approves projects is going to hold project backers to high standards and to prove that their projects "demonstrate significant impacts to jobs in Ohio as well as a statewide economic impact." And director Wray says he’s going to want to see some money attached as well. "That’s what we’re looking for. So come to us with great projects but also with ideas of how we can leverage private money, local money, whatever loans or whatever so we can get things done." A total of 35 projects – some of which are phases of larger projects – were approved for funding. ODOT says it’s still working on forging public-private partnerships to build bypasses around Portsmouth and Chesapeake in southern Ohio. And the project list could be affected by leasing, selling or whatever the state plans to do with the Ohio Turnpike and whether other toll roads could be created. You can find a complete list of updated projects from the Ohio Department of Transportation's Web site.