Fearing a “dangerous state of disrepair” for the state’s highways and bridges, the director of the Ohio Department of Transportation testified Thursday in favor of a proposal that would significantly increase the state’s gas tax, which is the lowest among all Great Lakes states. The proposal to increase the gas tax from 28 cents per gallon to 46 cents per gallon comes as state officials grapple with a significant funding shortfall, which could halt future road projects and curtail the maintenance of existing roads.
The 64 percent increase in the state’s gas tax, which hasn’t been increased since 2005, would generate $1.2 billion in additional revenue. The state would receive 60 percent of that additional revenue, while cities, towns, townships and counties would divvy up the remaining 40 percent.
Ohio’s gas tax rate is in the middle of the pack nationwide.
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.
With less money to go around, as many as 20 major road projects across the state could be put on hold, state officials said. By halting these projects and having less money to spend on maintenance, ODOT Director Jack Marchbanks told the Ohio House Finance Committee that driver safety could be put in peril.
“We know that deteriorating road conditions lead to more crashes. More crashes lead to more fatalities,” Marchbanks said. "More of our roads and bridges would inevitably slip into a dangerous state of disrepair, putting the safety of Ohio's drivers at risk.”
Part of the upcoming budget that lawmakers will consider, the proposed gas tax hike comes as ODOT has slashed operational expenses by $700 million since 2011, Marchbanks said. As many as 700 positions have not been filled or eliminated. The state agency has also implemented other measures to improve overall efficiency, according to Marchbanks. The proposed legislation also contains a provision that would tie the gas tax rate to the consumer price index. By doing so, proponents say the rate would be tied to inflation, which is a similar tactic that other states have implemented.
For a driver who logs 15,000 miles per year and drives a vehicle that gets an average of 30 miles per gallon, the proposed gas tax increase would cost nearly $100 more per year. Proponents point to the fact that the increase is less than paying for a new tire that’s needed because of bad road conditions.
“Any time a tax is brought up as an issue, I’m always thinking about what it’s supposed to fund,” said driver Cybil Freeman of Twinsburg. “If it is something I can use or would make life easier for us day to day, I definitely want to support that. You just figure out how to budget elsewhere.”
Other drivers, on the other hand, worried about the potential impact that a gas tax hike would have if gas prices ever creep north of $3 or $4 per gallon.
“I think we need all the money we can get to go into the roads. It’s just how they go about getting it,” said motorist Bill Fiegelist of Parma. “I don’t know if they can squeeze any more from the people that actually have to pay for gas and how that is going to affect the economy. Right now, it’s pretty good.”
Local municipalities would also see a minor windfall in road funding. ODOT estimates that the City of Parma, for example, would receive nearly an additional $2 million per year. The City of Cleveland would receive nearly an additional $7 million per year. That money can only be used for road-related improvements or maintenance.
Freeman said funding road improvements by way of a tax hike is a necessary expense even if it will cause budget constraints for her family.
“If it’s going to help the roads in Ohio, Northeast Ohio, we kind of need that. Our roads kind of suck,” Freeman said. “You do what you have to do. Pinch a penny somewhere else and figure out how you can fit in the budget.”
A vote on the proposed gas tax hike has not been scheduled.
ODOT has also created an interactive map that shows the projects and maintenance that could be impacted if the gas tax isn’t raised. View it below or click here.