COLUMBUS, Ohio (CGE) – President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that he wants Congress to pass a clean extension of the Surface Transportation Bill, which expires at the end of September, and a clean extension of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization, which expires in mid-September.
This sounds good, but given the political wrangling that Congressional Republicans engaged in over tying what had been a perfunctory expansion of the debt ceiling to pay past bills with demands for budget deficit reductions going forward, a process the nation was both confused with and powerless to stop, the dramatic gap between Senate and House highways bills is expected to create another scenario for more of the same, at a time when local engineers, contractors and state transportation officials are wondering where their next highway maintenance, repair or expansion dollar will come from, given the sorry state of the Highway Trust fund that historically has funded road infrastructure.
According to news reports, the Senate is working on a two-year bill at current funding levels, while the House, led by Ohio Congressman and Speaker of the U.S. House John Boehner, is looking at a five-year bill that cuts spending to what the gas tax brings in. Because these differences are so great, reports say, Congress will probably need a short-term extension of highway just to avoid it lapsing on Sept 30. Meanwhile, the Senate is looking at a 90-day extension. The president wants to keep that extension clean so the GOP doesn’t suddenly try to legislate changes to the gas tax, or put extraneous riders on the short-term stopgap, White House watchers said.
ODOT: Looking for funding
In Ohio, the state’s behemoth transportation department is looking into its crystal ball and doesn’t like what it sees. An ODOT spokesman said the agency wants to reduce its operational costs and put those funds into capital projects. “We are looking at ways to make ODOT as efficient as possible to ensure that we get the best value for every dollar we spend,” Melissa Ayers told CGE via email.
Ayers said ODOT wants to reduce its staff from 6000 to 5000, primarily by attrition. Under new Republican Gov. John Kasich, staffing reductions at the state level are underway in other departments, too, like development and corrections, where formerly public operations are migrating to privately run operations.
More importantly, Ayers told CGE that ODOT, by 2013, will be out of money. “By 2018 they won’t have enough money to provide the 20 percent state match for the fed’s 80 percent for projects,” said , adding, “We are definitely facing a financial crisis and by 2013 we will not have enough money for major new projects.” If funding levels continue at their current trend, Ayers said “it will become more and more difficult for us to match all of our allotted federal funds.” Ayers said the forecast for ODOT is that its budget will be $5.6B in 2012-2013.
One new wrinkle in Gov. Kasich’s first biennial budget was the introduction of so-called public-private partnerships, where local decisions makers can leverage private dollars from public dollars. While its new for Ohio, its also controversial, as statehouse Democrats argue it will reduce former public sector control and make the public’s ability to peer into the deals less transparent than before.
Task Force Members
ODOT Director Jerry Wray, Gov. Kasich’s first appointment following his narrow win last year, has formed a task force to look at ODOT’s operations. Members of that group are Fred Frecker, Former President, Flexible Pavements of Ohio and Task Force Chair, Howard Wood, Principal Consultant, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Dean Ringle, Franklin County Engineer, Mark Kelsey, Director of Public Services, City of Columbus, Chris Runyan, OCA President, Bob Campbell, Vice President, Transystems Consulting Group, Bob Dillhoff, Former Highway Management Administrator, ODOT District 1, Cash Misel, Former ODOT Assistant Director and Julie Brogan, Administrator.
Gov. Kasich’s big push to find new dollars comes with his proposal to lease the Ohio Turnpike, a 241-mile roadway funded through tolls and operated by an authority with special powers. Ayers said the first step toward finding a buyer or lessee for the Turnpike is developing an request for proposal [RFP]. Once the RFP is approved by the legislature, a condition contained in the state budget, only then can bids be solicited. More than a dozen firms have lined up to partner with ODOT in the production of this RFP. Ayers, who came to ODOT after serving in the office of transportation secretary under former President George W. Bush, said new additional highway lanes could be tolled. By Federal law, she said, only new capacity can be tolled, so “we are looking at all options to improve our infrastructure, but no final decisions have been made.”
Ayers said Gov. Kasich and Director Wray hope to have a proposal – a 20-40 year lease – by the end of Jan 2012. She said the goal is to work as quickly as possible to reach a deal that is the best for Ohio, a process that is expected to take at least 18 months. Ayers said Wray believes the lease would most likely be somewhere around 30 to 50 years.
At his event today, President Obama discussed the importance of moving forward with the surface transportation budget extension to “protect nearly a million American jobs and highlight the opportunity we have to work in a bipartisan way to further invest in rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure to strengthen our economy and create new jobs across the country.”
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