News Politics Transportation

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.

News Politics Transportation

Analysis: Kasich, TRAC, played politics, “burned” Cincinnati

In 2010 there was no reason to believe that Cincinnati’s streetcar project was in jeopardy, as all capital funds had been identified and future casino revenues were expected to cover annual operations costs. Late in the year I expressed my optimism to a seasoned local preservationist, whose terse response took me by surprise: “You guys haven’t been burned yet”.

On Tuesday April 12, Cincinnati finally got burned. ODOT’s nine-member Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC) approved a budget that reallocated $52 million of federal funds from the Cincinnati Streetcar project to a variety of minor upstate projects. This decision came just five months after TRAC identified Cincinnati’s streetcar as the state’s highest-ranking project.

The “burning” actually started in March, when state representative Shannon Jones (R-Springboro) introduced an amendment to Ohio’s biennial transportation bill that read, “No state or federal funds may be encumbered, transferred, or spent pursuant to this or any other appropriations act for the Cincinnati Streetcar Project.” This two-pronged attack on the state’s allocation of federal funds to Cincinnati’s streetcar project was the thinly veiled directive of John Kasich, Ohio’s newly elected Republican governor.

For those who attended the April 12, 2011 TRAC meeting at ODOT headquarters in Columbus, Kasich’s fingerprints were obvious not just by the actions of TRAC appointees, but by the language and tone of ODOT staffers. The two-hour meeting could best be described as a kangaroo court – its outcome was never in doubt, with five or more ODOT staffers and TRAC members reciting coached lines throughout.

The existence of Jones’ streetcar-killing state legislation provided cover for the day’s proceedings, but ODOT director and TRAC chair Jerry Wray and the staffers who work beneath him nevertheless concocted justification independent of what he duplicitously called “bad legislation”.

Funding for the Cincinnati Streetcar should be dropped, Wray and ODOT staffers argued, in favor of projects that promise to improve safety, especially two upstate railroad grade separation projects.

The grand orchestration of the meeting was not limited to Kasich-era appointees and ODOT staff; during public comments a fire chief remarked that five individuals had been killed at his area’s grade crossing since his service began some twenty years previous. His message was calculated: railroads are inherently unsafe, and modern streetcars, because they run on rails at-grade mixed with vehicular traffic, are dangerous to motorists and pedestrians.

A side show to this circus was the statement made by Jack Marchbanks, who was appointed to TRAC after the March 22, 2011 meeting. Other TRAC members didn’t even know his name, but he nevertheless arrived at the April 12th meeting prepared with props — a stack of CD’s and paperwork from a 2007 Columbus light rail study — to justify his vote against the Cincinnati Streetcar. Smiling, he insinuated that the legacy of the four-year Cincinnati Streetcar effort would ultimately be a similarly forgotten stack of CD’s and spiral bound reports.

Watching the morning’s proceedings like a hawk was Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory, who has been the face of the streetcar project since 2008. As a state senator in the late 1990’s, he was involved in the legislation that established TRAC in 1997. Its formation coincided with a 6-cent increase in Ohio’s gasoline tax that added hundreds of millions to ODOT’s annual budget. TRAC intended to keep state representatives from directing pork projects to their districts, but last Tuesday Mallory was witness to its critical flaw: that TRAC’s chair is also ODOT’s director. Because Ohio’s governors appoint ODOT’s director, a sleazy appointee of Wray’s ilk is able to intimidate ODOT staff as well as shape the agenda of TRAC.

Much credit is due to Antoinette Selvey-Maddox, TRAC’s sole southwest Ohio representative. She was the only TRAC member to challenge the day’s prevailing winds – first questioning if there was any precedent for the state legislation that blocks state allocations of federal funds to the Cincinnati Streetcar, then introducing a motion that would have seen a separate vote introduced to the process regarding the streetcar project.

The appearance of the motion clearly disturbed chairman Wray – he was not certain that votes were sufficient to defeat it. In short order it was defeated 4-3, but we must wonder, if the entire nine-member TRAC had been attendance, would the outcome have been different (two of TRAC’s nine members were absent from the year’s most important meeting)? A minute after the failure of her motion, Selvey-Maddox cast the only vote in opposition to TRAC’s 2011 recommendations.

The configuration of the meeting bears some description: it was held in the same small basement room where TRAC usually meets, with room for few people other than ODOT staffers, speakers, and media. The roughly 75 Cincinnatians who traveled to Columbus were seated in a nearby room, out of sight of both TRAC members and the media.

They watched the meeting on closed-circuit television, with poor audio. Apparently the microphone of Selvey-Maddox was not turned on, or was not working well, and so those in the overflow room did not come to appreciate her actions. The absurdity of this situation could not have been better scripted – an auditorium which could have accommodated everyone sat unused directly across the hallway from TRAC’s meeting room.

Approximately 75 Cincinnatians made the trip to Columbus in support of the streetcar. Speaking on behalf of the project were Mayor Mark Mallory, councilwoman Roxanne Qualls, councilwoman Laure Quinlivan, Cincinnatians for Progress officer Rob Richardson, and representatives from Christ Hospital, Sibcy Cline Realtors, Bromwell’s, and the University of Cincinnati. Opponents filled just four of ten allotted speaking slots, and no other opponents appeared to have made the trip.

Although Tuesday’s actions are a setback, Cincinnati is expected to announce a revised streetcar plan this week. With zero funding available from Hamilton County, and presumably zero available from Ohio until Kasich leaves office in 2014 or 2018, the attraction of additional public funds will be limited to direct federal grants (such as the Urban Circulators grant) and new or expanded local sources.

Videos produced by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy. More exclusive videos from UrbanCincy can be viewed on YouTube.