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Ohio's Highway Ponzi Scheme

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/08/19 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices

Ohio’s transportation fund has run out, and an emergency effort this week by state lawmakers to find tens of millions of dollars has come with heavy pressure to raise the tax on gas at the pump.

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While most agree that the gas tax is the fastest road to the state’s highway and bridge fund remaining solvent, Ohio hasn’t raised its gas tax since 2005; it has sat at 28 cents per gallon. Still far below its neighboring states’ gas tax rate, the push from lobbyists and the rushed nature of hearings in Columbus indicate that lawmakers are starting to cave from the pressure of not being able to build any new roads or fix the many new ones that the state has built as part of the largest expansion of roads in history.

The type of highway building and interchange development that Ohio has pursued is like a Ponzi scheme, traffic engineer and conservative blogger, Charles Marohn writes. States who do pursue an agenda of endless highway and road building have settled on an unsustainable system. When the chickens come home to roost, as they are once again in Ohio, the supporters and beneficiaries of the system offer a devil’s bargain—to keep the sprawl shell game going by raising taxes. Claims that the economy is humming along ring false at moments like this, where debt keeps piling up and the communities that were first in to the Ponzi scheme are left holding the bag on who will pay to repair their now aging roads and infrastructure.

Also, the gas tax is less potent as a revenue source because cars, thankfully, have become more fuel efficient. And people acting on climate change are purchasing electric vehicles.

Critics of raising the gas tax have noted that Ohio prohibits, in its Constitution, the use of gas tax to support alternatives to more driving. Transit supporters testified before Ohio lawmakers this week that any conversation about raising the gas tax would be premature without a way forward for funding the state’s beleaguered transit systems, which are in a free fall of revenues after losing a much-needed medical tax.

"Unfortunately, [Governor Mike DeWine’s 15-member Advisory Committee on Transportation Infrastructure] has no one representing public transit despite nearly 10% of Ohio residents that do not have access to a vehicle or are unable to drive,” says the advocacy group Clevelanders for Public Transit (CPT). “This is unacceptable and will lead to the same failures that have led us to this point.”

GCRTA lost $20 million from its budget from the medical tax change, and Ohio has made no new funds available to help it avoid painful cuts to its service and an expected rise in its fares.

“We need new solutions, not just building more highways,” CPT says, adding that state funding for transit in Ohio has plummeted from over $40 million in 2001 to less than $7 million today.

Meanwhile, GCRTA hasn’t stood still. It has changed leadership and initiated a system redesign—one of three studies the agency is performing. This week, the system redesign consultant, nationally respected transit professional, Jarrett Walker, released a survey to RTA riders and supporters that explores, in very clear language, the options that RTA must weigh to provide better service amid plummeting revenues and ridership. Even Northeast Ohio’s business community is finally rallying behind RTA, with the Greater Cleveland Partnership sponsoring a study that will look at how to make employment centers that have moved out to the edges of the metropolitan area more accessible for transit riders.

Support for raising the gas tax needs to be conditional on support for transit, says CPT, joining a statewide transit coalition called MOVE Ohio.

CPT recommends that Ohio pursue an 80/20 highway-transit split for any increase in the gas tax.

“These funds can be used for (Americans with Disabilities Act), pedestrian, transit, and bicycling accommodations on and along public rights-of-way,” CPT says, adding that they oppose any gas tax increase that does not address multimodal transportation. “Ohio cannot continue to expand road capacity without alternatives.”

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