I didn’t want to name this post “Is ODOT Turning the Corner?” because frankly, sometimes I’m not sure if they know there’s a corner to be turned. There is, however, evidence that ODOT isn’t completely asleep at the wheel.
In an appearance before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, ODOT Assistant Director Jolene Molitaris offered up some refreshing testimony about the recognition of challenges that we’re facing in Ohio.
The country’s underinvestment in transportation for many decades has resulted in an aging infrastructure with dramatically increasing demands and many needs. Ohio is no exception. A significant increase in federal transportation dollars and fair distribution of those dollars is critical. Ohio’s donor status did improve to 92% for highway dollars under SAFETEA-LU, but most undesirable is the fact that Ohio receives a mere 51% return on each dollar contributed to the Mass Transit Account.
Translation: We’re subsidizing the hell out of other states’ mass transit systems.
On the topic of “greener” alternatives, a third challenge continues to be a lack of federal incentive to help cities pursue alternatives to the automobile. Simply put, federal transportation funding favors highways over other transportation modes. The Federal Highway Administration will contribute up to 80 or 90 percent for highway improvements but only 50 percent for transit projects under the Federal Transit Administration’s New Start Program.
Translation: If you want us to keep building highways, don’t change the current funding structure. If you want us to ever break our addiction to oil, do something. As it turns out, Columbus is something of a case study in how the system is broken…
Another point on the transit disincentive is FTA’s ever-changing criteria. In Columbus, a passenger light rail project did not meet FTA’s New Start criteria, even though Columbus is now the state’s most populous city and one of the few growing regions in the Midwest. It has become almost impossible for most cities to introduce passenger rail projects – commuter rail, light rail, or streetcar – with federal help. One could interpret the constantly moving target as a technique to reduce FTA’s investments in these alternative transportation options.
Translation: The system isn’t just broken, it’s really broken. It’s so broken that we’re interpreting the Federal Government’s stance on alternative transportation as “just stop proposing these projects, because we’re not going to fund them.”
And finally, on the topic of highways…
Ohio’s most pressing federal financial challenge is the immediate need to ensure the solvency of the nation’s Highway Trust Fund. The latest figures from the Congressional Budget Office forecast a potential loss of between $140 million to $400 million for Ohio alone, representing a major blow to projects planned for as early as 2009 and 2010.
The first is a better recognition that urban projects, by their very nature, cost significantly more. Like threading a needle with an eight-lane highway, we are trying to modernize roadways tightly woven in a built environment. Modernizing off-ramps and on-ramps – once acceptable but now deemed dangerous by today’s standards – is not only complicated, but in some cases, the fix can have unseen economic consequences on downtown livelihood. In an urban setting, right of way costs soar. And some projects come to a grinding halt when historic properties stand in the way. Even just the maintenance of traffic during construction adds significant cost, as work must be pieced together in small sections over long periods of time.
Translation: The 70/71 split reconstruction is on life support. Maybe we should just reduce the speed limit to 45 and be done with it.