COLUMBUS — Facing a state transportation budget that lacks money for new major infrastructure projects, Gov. Mike DeWine has assembled a committee and tasked it to quickly come up with options.
A key question is whether it will recommend raising money through a gas tax increase — the most obvious short-term funding solution — or if it can find alternatives.
The 15-member committee, which includes representatives of oil and gas, local governments, unions, Honda, trucking and the travel industry, has just two weeks to propose solutions to a funding shortage that, as it stands, would leave at least 20 major road projects sitting idle, including a handful in and around Columbus.
Local officials also have been warned about potential state funding reductions for a host of smaller local road and bridge projects.
"We must ensure that our transportation system is not only safe and reliable, but that it also strengthens our economy by offering accessibility for current and new businesses," DeWine said.
Ohio’s road construction budget has been propped up in recent years by $1.5 billion in turnpike bond funding that has now run out. Ohio’s 28-cent per gallon gas tax has not been increased since 2005, and industry experts say its value has since dropped 35 percent because of inflation.
DeWine wants recommendations before he introduces his two-year transportation budget in mid-February.
Whatever the plan, it must get buy-in from legislative Republicans who oppose raising taxes.
"We have a pretty conservative caucus that, in general, has focused on cutting taxes," said Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina. "But we will look at what the revenue situation is and what potential sources are. Obviously the transportation budget is important and is one of the larger economic drivers for the state."
As more people drive fuel-efficient or non-gasoline-powered cars, the gas tax becomes less effective in the long run, Obhof said.
"In the short term, I don’t think it’s a big deal if we’re just looking for a two-year or a four-year patch, then, at least theoretically, a gas tax could be the right answer," he said. "But in the long term we need a reliable system of funding that doesn’t decrease as people shift to other forms of fuel."
Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, said members understand the importance of transportation infrastructure to Ohio's economic competitiveness. He wouldn't comment on the gas tax or other specific options, but said, "There is definitely a desire to arrive at a solution that provides resources for infrastructure in our state."
Dean Ringle, executive director of the County Engineers Association of Ohio, is part of DeWine’s group and is a member of a new coalition that includes local chambers of commerce, contractors, and truckers, pushing for a gas tax increase and other revenue options.
Ringle is not yet sure how specific the committee recommendations will get, but he’s optimistic it will find some options. Funding for major new road projects averaged $555 million per year from 2014 to 2017, but is estimated to drop to $20 million in 2020, only enough to cover potential cost overruns on projects currently under construction.
"In general, (the coalition) is very pleased that the governor has recognized that transportation is an integral part of meeting his other priorities," Ringle said. "Just to have him take the interest this quickly speaks volumes about the need for this committee to gather as much information as it can. We’ll see where it goes."