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Ohio by the numbers: anatomy of a highway state

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/20/14 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Transportation choices

A lot of assumptions are made about why Cleveland doesn’t move like a green city. Why are low-carbon forms of transportation, i.e. a network of bike lanes and a modern, efficient transit system not being built? It’s not as though demand isn’t going up. RTA has charted three straight years of growth in ridership and bike riding is on the rise.

<br />Cheap gas in Ohio's Wayne County. Image: GC Creative Studio<br />Images: From Streetsblog<br /><br />

There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that the state of Ohio doesn’t supply enough funding for sustainable mobility. But, it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction. Enter The 2014 Ohio Legislative Report. Starting on page 38, the report reveals much about Ohio’s transportation priorities, and why its cities appear to be starved for options.

Take, for example, Ohio’s 22nd place among states collecting taxes from fuel. By keeping taxes on fuel low, Ohio keeps prices at the pump low. It is a policy that acts as an incentive to drive more—and that’s exactly what Ohioans are doing (Buckeyes buck the trends in the U.S. of less driving).

Based on its funding priorities, Ohio thinks you should be driving all the time, preferrably, on a highway. One penny of the 46.4¢ per gallon that Ohio collects every time you fill up comes back to Local Transportation Improvement Program (LTIP), which provides additional funding to local governments for road and bridge projects.

In case you wondered where the other 45.4¢ is going, 56% of it goes to ODOT to finance road and bridge construction and maintenance and 31% goes to local government. That sounds almost fair, until you realized that the local governments maintain 86.8% or 105,364 miles of roadway while the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) is responsible for maintaining the other 13.2% or 16,027 miles.

The fiscal policy of ODOT is sending a signal to local communities—if you want a new road, get in line. As AMATS Executive Director Jason Segedy puts it, “The model in Ohio, and in the rest of the U.S. has been that federal (and many state) funds go for ‘the new stuff’ and local funds go for repair. Many of Ohio’s shrinking cities are advocating for expensive new roadway capacity projects while their own streets crumble. That’s not smart public policy either.”

How did it get this way? In part, because it’s written into the Ohio Constitution, which prohibits the use of the state gas tax on anything other than a highway or road building project. It is a policy that prevents the state gas tax from being used on road improvements for non-motorized travel, such as a bike project.

The gas taxes collected by the federal government are distributed to the states without the same strings attached. Washington doesn’t expressly forbid gas taxes from being used for adding a transit line or a bike lane. Well, then, has Ohio invested federal gas tax to bring more transportation options to the state? During the 2013 Ohio House debate, ODOT officials admitted to “leaving a little (federal gas tax money) on the table.”

Not all of the blame can be laid at the feet of the constitutional ban on using gas tax. Underfunding transit—Ohio ranks near last (#47) in state funding for transit while it has the 12th highest ridership—cannot be so easily explained.

Ohioans for Transportation Choice testified before the committee that in order to meet the needs of the 9% of Ohioans (35% in Cleveland) who are carless by need or by choice, $270 million should be requested by Ohio.

The legislative report confirms that Ohio Department of Transportation moved in the opposite direction—it continues to cut funding to greener forms of travel.

“Total expenditures on non-highway modes of transportation (public transit, rail, and aviation) made by the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) decreased by 17.0% between FY 2012 and FY 2014, from $84.3 million to just under $70.0 million. This decrease comes after non-highway spending grew by 35.2% between FY 2008 to FY 2012.”

Why are the priorities of ODOT not aligning with the data about the young talent the state hopes to attract and who, undoubtedly, will want to live in walkable, transit-connected places?

“Of ODOT's total non-highway transportation spending in FY 2014, 59.3% was for public transit, the lowest percentage since FY 2008. Transit's share of non-highway expenditures peaked at 71.8% in FY 2011. ODOT spent $41.5 million on public transit in FY 2014, 29.9% below the FY 2012 peak of $59.2 million.”

Meanwhile, Cincinnati managed to scrape together funds from Washington for a shiny new streetcar connecting its downtown to the Banks development and fast-rising Over the Rhine neighborhood. Columbus would like to expand its bus lines into the suburbs. Cleveland could use more frequent, cleaner and faster bus and train service.

The Kasich Administration has promised to look at Ohio’s Transit Needs—Cleveland will have its chance to weigh in this Tuesday at 2 p.m. at the offices of RTA. It’s an opportunity to express your displeasure with the numbers—and policy that the Buckeye State has in promoting a dependence on driving above all other options.

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5 years ago

@Jack - The 2011 Cleveland Complete and Green Streets law led the way to the city committing $1 million per year for the next three years to painting bike lanes. What can we do to demand a state budget that better responds to the needs of the 9% of the state's population using transit -- leave a comment for ODOT today (10/21) during its Transit Needs Study visit to Cleveland (2 p.m. at RTA's offices). Or, if you can't make it in person, you can comment through an email to Transit.Needs@dot.state.oh.us

5 years ago

What about the Cleveland green and complete streets legislation? Doesn't that force some money to be used for bicycle and transportation infrastructure?

Is there a way for the public to demand these funds be used better or are we out of luck?

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