EXCLUSIVE: ODOT Expected to Announce Major Shift to ‘Fix-it-First’ Policy

While Ohio’s gas taxes and population have remained flat over the past decade, the Ohio Department of Transportation has continued to add capacity to roadways across the state – in some cases even building entirely new roadways to add to the state’s existing infrastructure. This may all soon be ready to change in what is being called a “major” policy shift in Columbus.

According to employees at ODOT who were briefed at an internal meeting on the matter recently, the nation’s seventh-largest state is poised to announce in the coming months that the days of roadway expansion are over. Instead they say that ODOT will embrace a future focused on maintenance and preservation of its existing network of more than 43,000 miles of roads and 14,000 bridges.

While officials say the move is economically driven, it also comes at a time as activists around the country – including numerous cities throughout Ohio – are increasingly calling for governments to embrace a “fix-it-first” policy.

An increasing number of states have been adopting such policies, with Michigan being one of the first when it enacted its Preserve First program in 2003, and California being the largest when it joined the fray last year.

The forthcoming announcement from ODOT, however, goes a step further than that.

In addition to focusing funds on maintenance and preservation, ODOT officials also say that they will abandon their “worst first” approach to fixing existing roadways. In doing so they say that the new program, called the Transportation Asset Management Plan, can save the state an estimated $300 million over the next six years – money that can then be redirected to other preservation activities like cleaning, sweeping, sealing and micro-surfacing.

The idea here, similar to healthcare or household maintenance, is that it is often much more economical to make steady improvements rather than waiting to make repairs until the asset is too far gone.

“It’s finally sinking in that we cannot continue on this unsustainable pace of highway expansion,” said an ODOT employee who spoke to UrbanCincy on the conditions of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

According to ODOT’s own internal estimates, current funds will not be enough to maintain Ohio’s existing system by 2019 – the time when the Ohio Turnpike bonds are gone. Thus, without a major new source of revenue like a gas tax increase, ODOT intends to completely get out of the highway expansion business, and shift all funds to maintenance and rehabilitation.

“Most projects will occur before a road becomes severely compromised, and will be based around maximizing the service life of a particular road,” the ODOT staffer continued. “Long story short, ODOT isn’t going to waste its money on patching up a road as a temporary fix that will simply deteriorate again quickly because of major structural problems.”

There is no clear idea as to whether highway expansion projects currently on the drawing board will be impacted by this, but it appears likely that they will unless they receive capital funding through TRAC prior to 2019.

Such news could be damning for projects like the recently proposed Eastern Bypass or what is left of the Eastern Corridor project. At the same time, it could be the positive jolt needed for projects like the Western Hills Viaduct, which is in desperate need of an estimated $280 million fix.

  • Chas Wiederhold

    That last statement in the article is true cause for celebration!

    • Let’s hope ODOT steps up and supports the WHV project. Hamilton County and the City of Cincinnati will not be able to do it on their own; and the project sorely needs to happen soon.

  • Jenny Kessler

    how will this affect the Brent Spence Bridge project?

    • Brent Spence is a Kentucky project, if I recall.

    • Brian Boland

      It’s definitely both. The OH project zone is from roughly the onramps of the western hills viaduct in Ohio to the bridge.

    • You are right that it is a project in which both states need to be engaged. But at the end of the day, Kentucky needs to be the leader and come up with a path forward. Ohio is only a participant in the whole thing.

    • Gotcha, thanks!

    • matimal

      Bridges have two ends, if I recall.

    • This is where it starts to get into a grey area. The backers of the new bridge keep saying that it’s about improving safety, despite the fact that the current bridge is structurally sound; but building a second bridge will double the capacity of the current one. So will ODOT be able to sneak capacity increases past us by calling them “safety improvements”? It remains to be seen.

    • One more bit of gray area to this is that ODOT could allow for capacity increases if they are paid for by user fees. If the BSB moves forward with tolls as just about everyone believes it will, then that would seem to be the necessary element to move it forward. The user fees would provide the money to both build and maintain the asset.

    • My follow-up question would be whether this affects the I-75 widening projects (Millcreek and Through the Valley). If what I’ve heard that some forward thinking has been given to future rail corridor is true (just in terms of potential ROW), the political will could shift in the next several years to expand by rail rather than road.

  • Matt Jacob

    Where does transit fall into this new plan? Will existing transit like Cleveland’s RAPID see additional investment and will this make it harder for starting new lines like taking the streetcar to Uptown?

    • SC

      One would hope it’s a two-prong effort that aims to alleviate existing congestion with sensible public transit. Knowing ODOT, I doubt it but if they truly are serious, you can keep making incremental maintenance especially if you invest in alternative modes of transit that take traffic off existing roadways.

    • I am not entirely sure. The main focus of this information is on roadways. As we painfully know, ODOT does not provide state support for transit systems, so it’s not really on their radar as something that even impacts their budget.

  • matimal

    …and another crack in the foundations of the suburban industrial complex opens up…..

  • Brian Boland

    This is nothing short of a quantum shift in thinking. The unsustainable economic truth of socialized highways is finally showing through. I worry, though, that the deeper truth is that the state will not be able to keep up with the overbuilt environment already on hand.

    • I think they are worried about that as well. We’ve built an infrastructure for far more people than we will ever have in Ohio. The bills are finally coming due.

  • Gary Nelson

    Right. Many years ago (1977) when I was battling urban highways in the Troy, NY area the whole US was going through its “decaying infrastructure” crisis. The standard line from both NYSDOT and FHWA staff I talked to was “We are not building new, just fixing what we have”. Rather hard to believe as we were in the midst of fighting new expressways, that were built. Until we can stop traffic growth, or the occasional mega-development demanding new roads, there will be new construction and further strain on budgets for the increased asset maintenance.

    • JulieRBlack

      I’m pretty skeptical too. This does not sound like our beloved ODOT, so I’ll be curious to see what they mean by “fix it first.” I don’t believe the leadership at the state level has reached this level of insight yet.

    • Well, Ohio is now one of the slowest-growing states in the US, and on top of that, miles driven per capita has been flat for almost a decade across the US. At this point, if we’re building new roads and highways in Ohio, we are not doing it to support population growth. We are simply shuffling around our existing population, taking them away from existing cities and suburbs (and hurting those places in the process).

  • We may finally be seeing the first glimpse of peak road.

  • It is so frustrating that that video doesn’t even mention transit and getting people to work. Exporting autos, but not attracting talent and getting people to work. Not very forward looking, but that’s not surprising. Anyway, not to be a Debbie downer, the overall news is great, if they follow through.

    • Yes, let’s hope so. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I do not think ODOT intends to fully get out of the game of adding new capacity, but I guess any new capacity will need to be funded through user fees. That’s okay by me.

      As for transit, that’s another bear to tackle.

  • BillCollins45227

    This is the most exciting Ohio transportation news that I have read since ODOT’s announcement several months ago that many of us on the East Side had succeeded in killing the Eastern Corridor Highway through the Little Miami River National and Scenic River valley.

    This is a major step forward. Also, I think those of us who have been fighting this fight to pursue what in California CALTRANS calls “Low Build” options should pause to give ourselves partial credit for this achievement. We *do* have power, and we *do* influence public policy. I don’t know about you, but I feel happy, grateful and yes, empowered, by this decision.

    • Jonathan Hay

      I’m not sure the Eastern Corridor Highway will ever truely die. It’s probably just in the freezer in ODOT to bring out when they get money for fixing what they already have.

    • Right, I think it is important to keep in mind that ODOT isn’t making this decision because they have had some fundamental shift in their way of thinking. They are making this decision because they are out of money. So unless there is a change in leadership to someone who knows a “highway boondoggle” when they see it, there is a chance that the Eastern Corridor could re-emerge in the future if there is a sudden increase in funding.

    • BillCollins45227

      Jonathan: Technically, the “through-the-valley” portion of the proposed Eastern Corridor Project (the relocation of Route 32 to a new road along the Little Miami River) is new construction. So, if ODOT indeed adapts this new policy reported by Urban Cincy, then locally one of the outcomes of this statewide policy change by ODOT would, in fact, be the killing of this proposed new road).

      However, even as per this policy change, the status of the two portions of the Eastern Corridor project that follow existing roadways — (A) the upgrades to the existing Route 32 in Clemont County which is funded and under construction now and (B) Red Bank Road from I-71 Exit 9 to Columbia Parkway — are clearly not changed by this new policy.

      It’s important, I think, for us to recognize that because of successful community activism opposing the “through-the-valley” project for the last 40-plus years, we have won that battle. This latest policy change that we’re now expecting ODOT to announce serves to “lock in” that victory via the instrument of a public policy change from ODOT at the statewide level.

  • Erich Griessmann

    I like this article. BUT, one thing that it doesn’t address is the fact that even though the population of the state has remained flat, the population of the country has not. One million people immigrate to this country every year and when they get here they buy cars, homes, and other goods. This increases shipping, truck drivers etc. All of which travel on expressways like I-75 etc. Expansion has to continue on the major expressways that go through the state. I just think there needs to be a re-calibration to how the funds and manpower are implemented. What we don’t need is all highways to be widened. What we also don’t need is to ignore those issues and focus on structures that don’t get a lot of use. The Western Hills Viaduct needs to be re-done there is no argument. But an all or nothing approach on either side is not right. Why can’t government ever have a balanced approach? Why does it always have to be one way or the other?

    • JimthePE

      If they’re having problems maintaining what they have now, what business do they have expanding their system? Over time, an asset management approach concentrating on preventive maintenance will help the department get back to a good state of repair. At that time, they’ll be in a position where they can look at capacity needs.

  • David L. Miller

    Write your Representatives (State and Federal) and demand that they stop the diversion of tax revenues collected from gas / diesel use taxes to non-highway projects (bridle paths, Frisbee Parks, bike paths, etc….) THEN, sufficient funds will be available to maintain and expand highway capacities.

    • That is not correct. Even if 100% of gas tax went to roads, there is not enough money to fully fund maintenance of our roads, let alone highway widening and expansion. Either the gas tax needs to be raised or drivers need to get comfortable with the idea of paying tolls.

      Additionally, the point of using gas tax money for fund things like transit is that it takes cars off the road. If all of those transit riders had to drive every day, you’re adding a lot more cars and causing even more wear and tear.

    • David L. Miller

      Sorry, but I dispute your position….Transit riders should pay for the facility they benefit from…..as should those that elect to ride bicycles, or play Frisbee golf, or ride on bridle paths — Don’t tax my purchase of gas and diesel that is supposed to be placed in a Trust Fund to benefit highway critical infrastructure and then divert a portion of those dollars to non-highway projects….

    • David L. Miller

      …but I do agree that the gas and diesel tax should be increased, but ONLY if those dollars are to be employed for roads and bridges…..

    • SC

      Pssh- you do realize that taxes borne by ALL citizens are what funds the local roads right? Your gas tax, etc. does not even come close to paying for all that. It’s somehow ok to rob the local coffers for roads but not efficient transit or bike paths? Moreover, we all pay into things we might not use- fire depts, police, libraries, schools, parks, etc. These are public goods and beneficial for the city/state/country as a whole.

      I’m still waiting on all these drivers to pay back the massive 90% subsidization of the interstate system that the feds funded.

    • David L. Miller

      Hey, once you do basic research in order to better understand how what is funded by who, then get back with me…..

    • SC

      Nice comeback. Why don’t you do your research instead of spouting BS? I’m not your librarian.

    • David L. Miller

      That’s good, because you don’t have a command of the facts….Something a good librarian would achieve…..

  • Noibn48

    The major projects like WHV aside, fix the streets and roads the right way. Take it to the bedrock and start there. Chip and seal is nothing more than glorified deferred maintenance. Whether it’s a given city street or the disgrace that is SR 126 between US 50 and Loveland-Madeira Road, doing it on the cheap will only lead to quicker deterioration and costlier fix-firsts.