Rough roads ahead: ODOT in funding crisis

Belmont County may be home to one of the last bridges to be built in the Buckeye State for the foreseeable future.

That is because the Ohio Department of Transportation is experiencing a funding crisis. As a result, the new span across Interstate 70 near the Ohio Valley Mall that opened last year may be one of the last to be built for quite a while.

In addition to his discussion about the importance of newspapers, Gov. Mike DeWine shared his concerns about the department’s future during the recent Ohio News Media Association convention in Columbus.

He said ODOT has a “structural deficit” in which borrowing against future gasoline tax proceeds has left the agency with “no money for any new projects.”

In addition, DeWine said it will be a challenge for ODOT to simply maintain roads at the normal level while also completing “priority fixes,” to eliminate hazardous conditions.

In total, he said the department is facing a $1.5 billion shortfall.

Published reports support what the governor said.

ODOT Director Jack Marchbanks warned earlier this month that funding for road maintenance may need to be cut nearly in half from the 2014 level of $2.4 billion.

He said new projects will not be possible, since 90 percent of the department’s budget must go toward road maintenance. He warned that accidents could increase and termed the situation “dangerous.”

According to Col. Paul Pride of the Ohio State Highway Patrol, road conditions and inclement weather contribute to about one-third of highway fatalities in the state.

With reduced maintenance, therefore, our roads will become more hazardous.

Residents of our region might just have an advantage there, since we have become so accustomed to dodging potholes, slips and craters on state, county and township roads throughout the entire area.

A possible solution to the crisis that will be discussed as the state’s next biennial budget is crafted is an increase in the gasoline tax. It currently stands at 28 cents per gallon. Marchbanks said increasing that amount by 1 penny would generate an additional $67 million per year.

DeWine is expected to present his budget plan to the General Assembly later this month. A committee he appointed to study the ODOT crisis released recommendations Friday, suggesting not only a nonspecific gas tax increase, but also user fees on hybrid and electric vehicles.

The legislature is scheduled to pass a two-year transportation budget by March 31.

Let’s hope the governor and legislature can find a way to improve the road funding situation that won’t take too much of a bite out of our individual budgets.

As we all know in Belmont, Harrison and Monroe counties, our roads and our daily commutes are already rough enough.

DeWine also discussed his other budget priorities with the journalists who traveled to Columbus from all corners of the state.

Funding to support early childhood development as well as to provide addiction and mental health care to state residents are among his top concerns.

A father of eight, DeWine is focused on helping children who enter school without the skills and vocabulary they will need to succeed. He said only 4 percent of mothers who are eligible for certain types of support are now receiving those services, and his goal is to triple that figure.

“Poor kids take more services,” he said, noting that more funding needs to be funneled toward that portion of the population.

DeWine also said he wants to see every school in the state employ at least one individual with a mental health background. He noted that half of parents involved with the state’s Children Services programs are addicted to drugs, and this can lead to mental health issues among their children. Other adults are fostering some of those children, while some kids are being served in ways that help them adapt to life with their parents as they work through their own recovery.

DeWine pointed out that in addition to the mental health problems that lead to addiction, a lack of available services keeps the problem alive. He said in many cases, those who want to seek help have no place to go for an initial evaluation of their problem. He hopes to correct that, and he believes Ohio should do more as a state rather than urging local communities to pass levies to support such services.

You can read more about what is being done in Belmont County to provide services to children and families in crisis on page B1 of today’s newspaper. As for how the state’s next two-year budget will unfold, we simply must wait and see.

If you have concerns that don’t align with the governor’s priorities, contact your state legislators. They include Rep. Jack Cera, D-Bellaire, and Don Jones, R-Freeport, and Sen. Frank Hoagland, R- Mingo Junction.