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Major bridge project to begin next week; other projects in jeopardy amid gas tax debate

Posted: 4:49 PM, Mar 22, 2019
Updated: 2019-03-22 22:57:04Z
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NEWBURGH HEIGHTS, Ohio — The Ohio Department of Transportation will begin a $6 million project next weekend that includes the demolition and eventual reconstruction of the Harvard Avenue bridge over I-77.

For the weekend of March 29, northbound and southbound I-77 will be closed between I-480 and I-490 in order to remove the existing bridge, which was originally built in 1948. While the project has already been funded and bid out to contractors, other projects like it could face uncertain futures considering the $1 billion shortfall in road funding.

I-77 will close at 8 p.m. on Friday evening and will reopen at 5 a.m. on Monday. However, eastbound and westbound traffic taking Harvard Ave. will be forced to use a detour for the next six months. Kovacs said the ramps onto and off of I-77 will be open for the duration of the construction project.

Although the construction will bring some inconveniences, the regulars at the nearby Brown’s Tavern understand that the bridge needs to be replaced.

“I was born in 1947. That bridge has been there since 1948. We’re both worn out. It’s time,” George Lawandowski said as he let out a hearty laugh. “We’re just going to make a zip-line. Now we can have fun.”

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As construction prepares to shift in full gear, the funding for future projects remains in question.

Earlier this year, Governor Mike DeWine announced his administration would be recommending an 18 cent increase to the state’s motor vehicle fuel tax — better known as the gas tax. The state’s current gas tax rate of 28 cents, which is the lowest among all Great Lakes states, hasn’t been changed since the mid-2000s.

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The Ohio House of Representatives passed its version of the transportation budget, which included a 10.7 cent increase to the gas tax and a 20 cent increase for diesel fuel. Earlier this week, the Senate passed a version of the bill that only includes a 6 cent increase. The two bodies will have to reconcile on a bill before the March 31 deadline.

Under Gov. DeWine’s proposal, the gas tax hike would generate more than $1 billion in the first year. The Senate version, however, would only generate $400 million. The revenues would be split among ODOT and local governments. ODOT would receive just over $200 million in additional revenue under the Senate version. The director of ODOT told lawmakers last month that the gas tax hike is being proposed out of fear the state’s capillary system of roads, highways and bridges would fall into a ‘dangerous state of disrepair’ without additional revenue.

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In 2013, then-Gov. John Kasich cobbled together a short-term fix to infrastructure funding shortfalls by borrowing $1.5 billion against future revenues from turnpike tolls. That money, however, has already been allocated or spent. In recent years, gas tax revenues have been slowly undercut by more fuel-efficient vehicles, hybrids and rising inflation surrounding construction costs. One dollar spent on infrastructure in 2005 is worth almost half that now, according to figures provided to News 5 by ODOT.

“When you are talking about major projects being developed, we need that 18 cent tax increase just to make sure that future projects are being funded,” Kovacs said. “The best man-made asset in the state is our roads and bridges. We need to maintain them and enhance capacity and to improve safety. That’s what an 18 cent tax increase would do for us.”

The proposed legislation would also include substantial increases to public transit funding, although not to the level some public transit advocates would like to see.

According to an interactive map built by ODOT, dozens of safety and congestion-related projects would go unfunded if the gas tax hike isn’t approved. Scores of bridges wouldn’t be repaired or their maintenance would be deferred. Major projects to the I-90 corridor near downtown and Dead Man’s Curve would also remain unfunded.

You can see ODOT's interactive map below or by clicking here.

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