Roads and bridges falling apart, but cost goes unfunded

Temporary steel jacks support one end of the McEwen Road Bridge. They better last until 2020 — the soonest Montgomery County can afford to replace the span.

In 2013, chunks of concrete began falling onto a bike trail from the Harshman Road Bridge. Plywood sheets under the bridge protect passersby.

The Third Street Bridge in Dayton has gotten minor fixes since a portion of the deck dropped to the river bank in 2010. It’ll be 2019 before it’s replaced.

The bridges should have been rebuilt years ago. But the county can afford to replace five bridges a year, not ten — the number that should be replaced annually.

The state’s roadway and bridge repair backlog is so severe that many of Ohio’s county engineers believe part of the solution is raising local motor vehicle license fees to pay the bill.

Montgomery County Engineer Paul Gruner, presiding over revenue that’s stayed about flat since 1989 and hovered between $14 million to $16 million annually, keeps a concrete chunk from the Harshman Road Bridge on his desk.

“We are continually falling behind,” he said. “We don’t want to get to the point where we have to close bridges.”

Frustration has been building for years as Congress repeatedly dodges passing a multi-year bill to fund road construction and opts for extensions. The last was a two-month extension that expires at the end of July.

Higher licence fees considered

Earlier this year, the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a meeting with the county engineers from Montgomery, Butler, Clark, Greene, Miami, Preble, Hamilton, Darke, Shelby, and Clermont counties.

Legislation to enable the fee hikes has been proposed, but no action has been taken in the state legislature. County engineers have support from the Ohio Municipal League, County Commissioners Association of Ohio, and the Ohio Township Association.

In Montgomery County where 30 bridges have alarming structural flaws, raising license fees by $5 could raise $3.5 million annually. Under the proposal, a city could also add its own $5 hike and a township could add $5 dedicated to road and bridge work.

Research by the county engineers indicates Ohio imposes some of the lowest fees among the states.

“The problem is a lack of local resources to replace these bridges and roadways,” Chris Kershner, the Chamber’s vice president for economic development said. “We think that is an opportunity that should be seriously considered.”

Fred Pausch, executive director of the County Engineers Association of Ohio, doesn’t expect swift action from the legislature.

“Right now, it’s still kind of in an educational aspect. There’s no stand-alone bill on it. We have been talking to legislators to put it in different bill amendments. It’s still an uphill education battle now,” Pausch said.

At the state level, there’s no discussion of raising fuel taxes — the traditional source of revenue.

The federal portion of taxes on fuels has not been raised since 1993.

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association puts the bridge repair backlog nationally at $106 billion — 1,525 miles of bridges.

There’s no denial that the needs are massive. The term “crisis” has been used so often that it’s built into the discussion.

Start turning to other sources

The state, so far, has responded by borrowing against Ohio Turnpike revenue, cost-cutting within the Department of Transportation, proposing tolls to finance the $3 billion price tag for rebuilding the Brent Spence Bridge and entering into what amounts to a mortgage with a private lender.

The Brent Spence Bridge carries Interstates 75 and 71 across the Ohio River from Cincinnati to Kentucky.

The mortgage is in the form of a public/private venture — the first in state history — the $429 million Southern Ohio Veteran’s Memorial Highway in Portsmouth. The 17-mile roadway connecting U.S. 52 with U.S. 23 will finish construction in 2019. The road will be maintained by the Portsmouth Gateway Group. By the time the state pays the last annual installment — around 2054 — interest, financial fees and other costs will have totaled $1.2 billion.

“We can build this road today and start realizing the economic benefits,” Ohio Department of Transportation spokesman Matt Bruning said.

The Brent Spence project is stalled after the Kentucky legislature balked at the prospect of tolls. For the sake of perspective, the cost to rebuild the critical bridge is about the size of ODOT’s annual budget.

But state borrowing to get projects done can have implications down the road, said Alison Black, Chief Economist with the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, a trade group representing 6,000 contractors, engineers and others in the road building industry.

In New Jersey, tough decisions seem inevitable because the state’s hit the wall using bonds and borrowing, Black said, with debt service now so high that all the state’s user revenue is devoted to paying the tab. Black says paying transportation costs with ongoing revenue is preferable to borrowing. The Association is lobbying for a 15 cent increase in the federal gasoline tax.

It’s not that legislators everywhere have shied from hiking the state gas tax. South Dakota earlier this year approved a 6 cents-per-gallon state gas tax increase, added 1 percent to the motor vehicle excise tax, and raised license plate fees by 20 percent. That should generate an estimated $80 million for state and county highways and bridges.

Iowa also this year approved a 10 cents-per-gallon state gas tax increase, expecting to generate $200 million per year.

Chances in Ohio for similar action seem nil. ODOT’s Bruning puts it this way.

“There have been absolutely no discussions of an adjustment in the gas tax,” he said.

Until then, county engineers hope to persuade state legislators to allow local fee hikes.

Butler County’s Engineer Greg Wilkens sees roads that need resurfacing every 15 years but a budget that can pay for it only every 28 years. “We are doing a lot of stop-gap measures,” he said.

In Clark County, a half-dozen bridges are structurally deficient and need to be replaced. “The fear I have is if we wait too long to fix this issue, it will cost even more,” said Johnathan Burr, Clark County’s Engineer.

Ted Hubbard, Hamilton County’s Engineer, supports the fee hike for its potential to accelerate road resurfacing, which is now on a bumpy 20-year cycle.

“It would mean a lot to us,” Hubbard said.

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