The deep dysfunction in Washington is forcing states like Ohio to devise creative ways to find money to fix their outdated roads and bridges and avoid catastrophes like the 2007 bridge collapse in Minnesota that killed 13 people.
“We can’t count on the feds to come in and save the day,” said Chris Runyan of the Ohio Contractors Association.
The result is that Ohio is left with a lot of aging infrastructure and there isn’t nearly enough money to fix or replace all the roads and bridges that are deteriorating.
In its latest state report card on Ohio, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Ohio a D for the state of its roads, rating 42 percent in poor or mediocre condition. More than 2,400 of the state’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient, while 427 dams are considered “high hazard.”
The report also has some eye-popping estimates on the costs to motorists from driving on potholed and crumbling surfaces: $1.685 million a year, or about $212 per driver.
But relief from Washington doesn’t appear to be on the horizon. The problem is two-fold: Congress can’t agree on a long-term highway construction bill — traditionally covering five or six years — and the per-gallon federal gas tax that helps fund federal highway programs hasn’t had an increase since 1993. Ohio did increase its gas tax in 2005, but the increase was split evenly between all 88 counties regardless of the amount of surface traffic they have.
The funding gap means local county engineers offices are constantly making tough choices — putting off some needed repairs while focusing on other, more pressing problems.
Montgomery County Engineer Paul Gruner said the problem goes beyond just finding more federal funding, if that was even possible. Federal dollars need a local match, he said, and the county can’t afford to spend more on its infrastructure. As a result, the county plans to borrow $4 million through the state’s infrastructure bank to match federal dollars next year.
“We’re spending a lot of money to keep bridges open,” Gruner said. “That’s money we’re throwing away because we’re going to replace them as soon as there’s money to replace them.”
In a list compiled by this newspaper of the bridges in the worst shape — those rated as both structurally deficient and fracture critical — Montgomery County had two on the list, both spanning the Great Miami River. One of them, on Wagner Ford Road, has been closed since 1984 but is on the list because it still must be inspected by the county.
Bridges deemed unsafe are quickly closed, Bruner emphasized. But the county, he said, has had to cut down on resurfacing and hold off on safety projects like widening shoulders or replacing four-way stops with traffic signals because of the lack of funds.
“We’re doing the best we can,” he said.
The same situation is occurring in other area counties. Clark County Engineer Johnathan Burr said his county recently began construction on an outdated bridge on Selma Pike, but he still has at least two other bridges he’d like to replace.
The bridges are rated as structurally deficient and fracture critical by the national bridge rating system. Structurally critical bridges need maintenance or even replacement. Fracture critical bridges, meanwhile, have no structural redundancies – meaning if part of the bridge fails, there’s nothing to back that part up.
Burr said his office has a $7 million annual budget – money that pays for everything from salaries to snow plows to salt. The two remaining structurally deficient and fracture critical bridges — one on Morefield Road and the other on Newlove Road — would cost about $800,000 a piece to replace.
Burr said his goal is to replace the bridges before he has to lower the load limit. “You’re putting Band-Aids on there where the thing needs to be replaced,” he said.
In Miami County, 18 bridges have “reduced loading,” meaning the county engineer’s office has lowered the amount of weight they can hold.
Miami County Engineer Paul Huelskamp said in an ideal world they’d have no bridges with reduced loads. Doing so, however, would cost about $10 million.
Huelskamp said the county is luckier than most because they’ve had a bride levy in place since the mid-1950s that generated about $700,000 last year.
In Greene County, county engineer Robert Geyer tries to avoid accepting federal dollars if possible. The county instead has relied on local funding, including a bridge levy that it uses to replace crumbling bridges.
Federal money has “too many strings attached,” Geyer said.
Greene County isn’t alone in trying to find alternatives to federal dollars. Ohio Transportation Director Jerry Wray jokes that the state has done everything “including raiding the seat cushions for spare change.”
Among the alternatives was one pushed by Republican Gov. John Kasich and passed by the Ohio legislature last spring that allows the state to borrow against future tolls on the Ohio Turnpike in order to help pay for highway programs. The state is also considering sponsorships and advertising of state rest areas. And state officials have restructured salt contracts and negotiated lower electric prices as a means of saving money and freeing up more cash.
Ohio spends $2.8 billion on its roads and highways, but Wray said the amount stays roughly the same while “the wants and needs of communities and regions around the state far, far exceed that.”
He said the debate over finding alternatives, such as the use of toll revenue, is
part of a larger discussion about what role the federal government should play in transportation policy: Should money be collected, sent to Washington, then sent back to the states in the form of block grants or other payments? Or should the federal government play less of a role and let the states take care of themselves?
He leans toward the latter, arguing it would also mean less “telling states what to do.”
“If you’re a state you can sort of sit on your hands and say, ‘Wow, we’re in trouble, we need the federal government to bail us out,’ or you can be more proactive and say ,’what can we do to take care of things here at home,’” he said.
Rob Puentes, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Metropolitan Policy Program, said in some cases state and local officials are relying on corporate and philanthropic groups to address traffic problems.
But officials say some federal role will continue to be necessary because, after all, old roads and bridges don’t get any younger.
“The gas tax is not going away,” Puentes said, but highway funding “is going to look very different in the future.”
Whether Congress can agree on a solution is one of the many mysteries of Washington. Congress last year passed an 18-month extension of the highway bill because it couldn’t agree on a long-term policy. This was done after the 2005 highway bill, which expired in 2009, was extended nine times.
Puentes said when Congress passed a short-term transportation bill last year members had a chance to use that time to look at alternatives. So far, they have not.
“We haven’t used that time as well as we should have,” he said. “There’s no plan.”