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Gas Tax Debate Weighs Heavily On Future Of ODOT

The state’s transportation agency is facing a long road of trouble – a growing need to build and repair infrastructure with a declining revenue source in the gas tax. But there's plenty of disagreement over whether to hike the tax. Communities around Ohio were stunned earlier this year when ODOT announced a $1.6 billion hole in its construction budget, and that it would have to delay many major projects for years. Some people – including a few state lawmakers – have speculated that the time has come around again to revisit raising the gas tax, which funds ODOT. Republican Rep. Rex Damschroder of Fremont in northwest Ohio is in that group, saying he doesn’t like higher taxes, but this is something to consider. "Before I drive my new car – and a new car is 30, 40, 50-thousand dollars - and I have the choice of paying a little bit more in gas tax and driving it on a good road as compared to driving that new car on a pothole-filled road, I’m certainly one person that would be in favor of paying a little bit more for a better highway. "If you don’t like it, you don’t have to drive a car." But one former state lawmaker says that won’t work because of the math problem ODOT is dealing with. Former representative Gene Krebs of southwest Ohio is now with the transportation think tank Greater Ohio. He says as the state’s road projects that are growing bigger and more expensive, more fuel-efficient cars is leading to a decline in gas tax revenue. And he says that formula is creating a drop of 7 percent in ODOT’s purchasing power each year. "That is equal to two pennies of gas tax. So we would have to raise the gas tax two pennies a year, year after year after year, just to maintain the status quo. If you want to go ahead and start fixing a lot of these bridges and overpasses that have hit their 50-year, 60-year edge of their lifespan, you’re now talking 9 pennies a year for decades," Krebs says. Damschroder notes that electric cars pose a unique problem, in that they don’t generate any gas tax revenue. But the most damage to roads is done by heavy vehicles such as semi. Some cities and countries have explored a "use tax" based on how often a driver uses a road, gauged from an electronic tracker in the car – but that idea makes both Krebs and Damschroder uncomfortable. Many people then turn to the Ohio Turnpike – the Kasich administration is still studying whether to lease it for a big lump sum or privatize it in other ways. Damschroder lives along the Turnpike, and he’s very upset about the idea that money from that toll road being used throughout the state. "I’m going to propose that we amend, and I’m sure the legislature’s really going to jump on this, maybe putting some tolls in Cincinnati on the bridges down there, and in Columbus on the bypass around, and have half of those fees sent up to northern Ohio to help us out with our roads. "And then all of a sudden it’s got to get a little clearer to these other legislators – this just is not fair." Gene Krebs says that facetious proposal shows just how desperate the situation is. "We are all out of our pleasant solutions – all the solutions we have are ugly solutions." ODOT says it saved $200 million by trimming its payroll by 400 positions, by making some budgeting policy changes, and finding cost efficiencies in projects. And the agency is also rolling forward with its plans to offer sponsorship opportunities at some of Ohio’s 104 rest areas – the agency is hoping to raise $30 million to $50 million dollars with that idea.