The Ohio Department of Transportation has delayed the widening of busy U.S. Route 80 through Girard and Liberty, from four lanes to six, until the year 2036. Why bother setting a date?
The area is not alone as ODOT has delayed major highway projects throughout the state. Plans to reconstruct sections of Interstates 70 and 71, originally scheduled for 2014-16, are moved back to 2026-34. Again, why bother setting a date?
The problem is money. According to the ODOT, previous administrations promised the projects despite not having the money to complete them. According to Democrats, Republican Gov. John Kasich is using the delay to promote his idea of privatizing the turnpike.
We suspect both are true.
Last year Ohio motorists bought 29 million fewer gallons of fuel than they did a decade ago. That translates into more than $8 million less for road and bridge work.
In the last two-year budget cycle, federal stimulus money saved state finances but in the current two-year budget Ohio had to trim about $8 billion to make ends meet.
Kasich wants to lease the turnpike to a private company in exchange for a large, lump-sum payment. What better way to elicit support than to dangle the lease profits in front of those whose highway projects have just been delayed?
However Ohio resolves its highway dilemma, two courses must change direction. The first is that Congress needs to pass a long-term transportation bill. Since 2005, Congress has passed only temporary re-authorizations leaving states unable to budget for major highway projects. There is something disingenuous about lawmakers criticizing the Turnpike lease idea but then failing to get a transportation bill passed in Washington.
The other direction that must change is the portion of Ohio's transportation budget devoted to roads, 99 percent by one analysis. If Ohio spent more money on freight rail -- restoring, replacing and adding lines in re-industrializing northeast Ohio -- it could save a greater amount in highway and bridge maintenance down the road. Using rail more gets trucks off the roads thus slowing the wear and tear.
Ohio communities need a quick highway funding fix to restart important projects like the Route 80 widening. But long-term, ODOT and Congress should change some long-standing traditions.