The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

September 3, 2013

Highway funds don’t keep up with traffic levels

By RICK ROUAN
The Columbus Dispatch

— Ohio’s interstate system is among the busiest in the country, absorbing billions of miles of wear and tear each year.

But the pace of cash flowing into state coffers to pay for highway upkeep hasn’t kept up with traffic levels, and some say that funding should go to alternative modes of transportation.

Since 1988, vehicle-miles traveled on Ohio’s interstate system had grown from about 21.5 billion to nearly 31.4 billion in 2011, a 45 percent increase. Only California, Texas and Florida have busier interstates than Ohio’s 1,574-mile system, according to new 2011 data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the latest available.

During that time, revenue from the gas tax has more than doubled, from $800.6 million to nearly $1.8 billion in 2011. Adjusted for inflation, however, 1988 revenue would be about $1.6 billion in today’s dollars — an increase of only 15 percent over 23 years.

“In (2008), we saw consumption drop off dramatically,” said Ohio Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Faulkner. “Inflation pretty much wiped out the gas-tax increase.”

Income from Ohio’s 28-cents-a-gallon gas tax funds road repairs, highway expansions and other maintenance, but increased costs, inflation and shrinking consumption have depressed purchasing power and revenue.

The state is trying to respond to the problem without raising the gas tax. About $1.5 billion in bonds against future Ohio Turnpike revenue are being used to pay for major highway projects in northern Ohio, and the legislature has asked for a report on alternatives to the gas tax.

But the state’s roads are still deteriorating. A report card issued this year by the American Society of Civil Engineers graded Ohio’s road network at a D.

Travel on the stretch of I-71 that runs through Ohio ranks 22nd in the country, with nearly 5.5 billion vehicle-miles traveled in 2011, according to federal transportation data. With 4.9 billion vehicle-miles traveled in 2011, I-75 through Ohio ranks 30th. In the Midwest, only I-94 through Michigan saw more traffic in 2011.

Faulkner said ODOT uses that data to prioritize highway projects. Congestion is a key evaluation point for applicants to the state’s Transportation Review Advisory Council, which allocates funding for large projects, he said.

Some have suggested that vehicle-miles should be a new way to tax drivers who own gas guzzlers, fuel-efficient or electric vehicles. Oregon became the first state to have a VMT tax when it enacted legislation in July to charge up to 5,000 motorists 1.5 cents per mile driven.

“It’s one of the avenues we’re going to have to look at when we move forward (with) ... hybrids and electric cars,” said Fred Pausch, the executive director of the County Engineers Association of Ohio.

The Ohio Public Interest Research Group’s nonprofit education fund wants more dollars allocated to alternative forms of transportation because new federal data show that driving is declining per capita, according to a report issued last week.

The group’s latest report found that Ohio was one of four states where driving per person increased between 2005 and 2011, but per-capita vehicle-miles traveled remains below its 2004 peak. In the spring, an Ohio PIRG report said that young people are driving less and relying on alternative transportation more.

“Ohio interstates may carry a lot of traffic, but in choosing where to invest in infrastructure, the real question is about trends and what we foresee for the future,” said PIRG spokesman Bryan Stewart.