What’s in the Dept. of Transportation Budget?

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As others have noted, the ODOT budget, introduced in the House yesterday, is a status quo preservation act. It’s more or less a cut-and-paste job from the last two year budget, except less innovative. Here’s a rundown of the key initiatives – all of which will sound familiar to anyone who recalls the last transportation budget:

  • Expanded design-build authority, allowing the Department to engage firms for the design and construction phase of a project in a single contract.
  • Expanded authority to generate revenue from traffic generation signs – this time allowing sponsorships of the brown signs indicating a historical destination.
  • Expand tolling authority to allow the Department to accept and request proposals for new capacity projects financed by a private-sector partner. The Brent Spence bridge was an example of a project whose $3 billion price tag made it unrealistic without a private partner and tolling. Another example was a new 36/37 interchange in Delaware County.

New proposals from the Kasich administration include:

  • Carve-outs from Buy Ohio rules for the purchase of road salt
  • Reassignment of authority for making decisions about roadside advertising, in compliance with federal Highway Beautification Act, to the local level.

And a few noticeable differences with the last administration:

  • Significant cuts to public transit (granted, those funds were not in the last budget, they were identified later in the biennium). In a comical bit of math gymnastics, Director Wray instructed the committee that the cuts to transit in FY12 and FY13 relative to 2011 were actually increases, because you should ignore 2011 as an anomaly. (If you consider much-overdue creativity about the use of flexible federal funds to aid our urban transit systems an “anomaly” and not “progress”).
  • No investment in passenger rail or other modes of transportation. When asked about Ohio river transport, the Director first looked puzzled, then explained that it is up to the US Army Corps of Engineers to improve our water ports, apparently seeing no role for the Ohio Department of Transportation to encourage alternate modes of freight transportation.
  • No new financing approaches for our roads. The previous budget introduced the concept of Transportation Innovation Authorities, giving local and regional leaders new tools for investment in infrastructure.

From the hearings, a few areas of pushback from legislators that signal likely amendments in the House:

  • Director Wray indicated that the Transportation Review Advisory Commission (TRAC) had overcommitted to projects around the state and that within two months they would be revising the draft list to remove a substantial number of projects. At one point, he suggested it was overcommitted by 60%. Local communities work very hard to get projects ready for selection by the Commission for inclusion on the state’s major new construction list, and will not tolerate having their projects removed without a fight. In the 2008-2009 budget, the legislature included an amendment tying the hands of the administration from placing any new projects on Tier 1 until all the current projects were completed. Expect a similar act of protectionism here as legislators get nervous about planned projects being cancelled.
  • Also worth noting is the Cincinnati Streetcar project is the highest scoring project on the TRAC list, so if legislators try to protect existing projects, it will be interesting to see if they protect that as well. Republicans hate the project, and we hear rumors that ODOT is saying they want no part of it.
  • Committee members also expressed discomfort about the Department’s approach of paying a stipend to losing bidders in the design-build proposal. Inspector General Tom Charles, now DPS Director, raised issues with it during the Strickland administration. Another candidate for amendment by the Committee.
  • Democrats are likely to offer an amendment requiring any private company building infrastructure as the result of a public-private partnership to follow state prevailing wage and minority business requirements. Director Wray merely indicated they would “follow applicable laws,” which provided little comfort given that outsourcing the financing of a transportation to a private company is a new area of statute.

The subcommittee will meet again tomorrow to hear DPS testimony, and reconvene next week to finish up on Transportation before sending the bill back to the full Finance Committee on Wednesday. The full hearing schedule is available on our budget events calendar.

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