Will Ohio keep widening highways when it can't afford to maintain what it has already built?

9 highway projects to watch out for
Posted at 6:00 AM, Mar 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-25 18:32:48-04

The stretch of Interstate 75 that runs through the city of Cincinnati has been under construction for nearly a decade. Nine years ago, the Ohio Department of Transportation began the Mill Creek Expressway improvement project, at an estimated total cost of $550-650 million. The project's goal is to improve the integrity of the roadway and increase vehicle capacity.

But is increasing capacity on a highway system that the state has admitted it cannot afford to maintain — under current funding levels — really the best idea? Like most things related to infrastructure in Ohio, points of view vary.

It's the first time the interstate highway has undergone a major overhaul since its construction in the 1960s. The face-lift has been major, all the way down to the foundations of the roadway where it meets the topsoil underneath. It also has included adding a lane of traffic in each direction through portions of the tightly populated urban basin neighborhoods.

As the project draws toward its final phases — hopefully quickly; it's still unclear when crews will complete construction — the stretch of highway is wider than it's ever been.

Ben Smeeks drives I-75 from his Covington home to work in West Chester every day. The 30-year-old Aurora, Indiana native moved into the region's urban core about six years ago and began commuting daily on 75 about three years after that. In addition to working as a musician, Smeeks also has a day job hanging drywall for a local company working primarily throughout the region's northernmost suburbs.

In other words, his jobs have him on the road a lot. He said navigating I-75 up and down between Covington and West Chester is easily the worst part of his many commutes.

"I don't remember a time making that drive when there wasn't construction and really bad traffic," he said. He usually leaves Covington around 6:30 or 7 a.m. and heads back from West Chester around 5 or 5:30 p.m. — essentially at the worst possible times.

Ben Smeeks commutes from Covington to West Chester every day. (Pat LaFleur/WCPO)

"It stresses you out," he said. "It’s harder to decompress after sitting in 45 minutes of extra traffic after a long day’s work."

He also said he hopes traffic congestion — which hasn't improved in his memory either, he said — will ease up once construction has concluded. Whether it actually will mean less traffic congestion along the northern half of the busy Brent Spence Corridor remains to be seen.

An 'impending crisis' on Ohio's roads

In one of his first acts as ODOT's new director, Jack Marchbanks addressed the Ohio General Assembly in early February warning of an "impending crisis" in funding new maintenance and improvement projects for the roads, highways and bridges under the agency's jurisdiction.

"It is a grim financial situation," he said. "It is also a dangerous one."

Ohio has one of the nation's biggest road and bridge networks but sits in the lower half when it comes to ways to pay to maintain and improve them.

All told, roughly $1 billion in major new road and bridge projects — which include maintenance and repair work as well as improvement projects like new interchanges and more lanes in some spots — will not have funding under the state's current transportation budget structure, Marchbanks said.

Ohio's roads and bridges make up the fourth-largest road network and second-largest bridge network in the U.S. By contrast, Ohio ranks 29th for its gas tax rate.

"Over the decades, Ohio has found a way to fund its roads and its bridges without relying on the gas tax," said Mark Policinski, who heads up the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments. "Other states rely more heavily on it. So, it’s just a different philosophy, if you will, in taxing and how you raise money for roads."

Marchbanks and the man who appointed him, newly-inaugurated Gov. Mike DeWine, agree the stagnant gas tax is the root of ODOT's budget problems. The majority of funding for road and bridge projects in Ohio comes from gas tax revenue, but the last time the General Assembly approved an increase was in 2003, and it was never adjusted to increase with inflation.

As a result, a dollar's worth of gas tax revenue in 2003 is now worth roughly 58 cents, and more fuel-efficient vehicles on the roads means drivers are spending less on gasoline.

As if that wasn't enough to cause a major problem, the state also has no road user fee mechanism in place to tax drivers using fully electric vehicles, which Marchbanks said are growing in popularity.

All this has led ODOT to borrow against future gas tax revenue, which also has to be paid back. The first installment toward that repayment will be $390 million.

Smeeks said he's already seeing the agency's struggle to keep up with maintenance issues like pothole repair, especially as winters get wetter and seasonal damage to the roads increases in intensity. Just before meeting WCPO for an interview, he hit a pothole on Interstate 275 and blew out a rear tire.

"I was driving from Sharonville to the Montgomery Row exit, and I hit a pothole. It couldn’t have been more than 10 inches in diameter, and it somehow shredded my tire," he said. "It took me into the other lane, and I had to pull off.

"It was a whole fiasco."

Do wider roads mean safer roads, and can we afford them?

Everyone agrees the current gas tax rate cannot maintain the road and bridge system ODOT has built over the last half-century, but there are some who say the problem extends beyond stagnant gas tax revenue.

First, ODOT officials point to inflation and the rising costs of highway construction work as another factor contributing to the projected deficit. They estimate a five- to six-year delay in a simple repaving project would triple its cost.

But some say the decades spent adding capacity to the state and interstate highways might have made maintenance costs unmanageable.

Widening roads and highways has been a standard solution for state departments of transportation to address the growing problem of traffic congestion and rise in vehicle ownership. The basic theory is that increasing capacity allows more space between moving vehicles, and that means smoother flow of traffic and safer distances between vehicles sharing space on those roads.

As far as widening its roads, ODOT has been quite conservative over the last three decades, at least. According to ODOT spokesman Matt Bruning, the department has only increased the capacity of its roads by 4.5 percent since 1984, from 47,436 lane miles that year to 49,552 lane miles in 2017.

Generally, ODOT officials estimate roughly 90 cents on the dollar of the agency's spending is put toward maintenance and repair work, while the other 10 percent goes towards improvements. Improvement projects include anything from rebuilding exit and entrance interchanges, replacing bridges or adding new lanes to existing roadways, among others. Often maintenance and improvement work is combined in a single project.

As for projects that include widening, roughly $476 million-worth of 2018, 2019 and 2020 projects include some sort of capacity increase across the state. That's including current work on the Mill Creek Expressway

But others argue the opposite: that wider roads encourage more dangerous driving habits and don't actually decrease congestion in the long term.

John Yung is an urban planner working in Cincinnati. He said road-widening projects don't just add to future maintenance costs, but, over time, they're shown to increase traffic on the roads.

John Yung is an urban planner working in Cincinnati. (Jay Warren/WCPO)

"When you have a roadway, you have a certain amount of vehicular capacity," Yung said. "So what you have when a street that is widened or a highway is widened, that allows for more cars to occupy the road."

Yung was referring to a concept in transportation and highway planning called "induced traffic." Borrowed from the economics concept of induced demand -- that as supply increases, more of the good is consumed -- mid-century American urbanist Lewis Mumford used the phrase to describe the idea that building more roads — or wider roads — will just mean more traffic.

As Mumford famously put it, "Building more roads to prevent congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to prevent obesity."

The wider the road, the more likely a driver is to speed, too, Yung said.

"When a road is so wide, it actually encourages them psychologically to drive faster," he said. "It's like when you're on the freeway, the open road, and you can drive as fast as you want even though there's a speed limit. We've found that people are psychologically coaxed to slow down on narrower streets."

Take Ohio 32 in Union Township, where crews recently completed a widening project near its interchange with I-275. It wasn't long after the extra lane appeared that two fatal crashes occurred within a single month.

Although he did not say the new road design caused the crashes directly, Union Township Fire Chief Stanley Deimling, shortly after the second deadly crash on Jan. 6, said he's concerned about the area: "I’m not a traffic engineer. I don’t know what the solution is, but there’s a definite problem here when we’ve had two fatalities in a short period of time at the exact same location."

Research on induced traffic is mixed: Some studies have found no improvement in traffic congestion after increasing road capacity, while others have found other factors to be at play, including growing population and income. One study out of University of California Transportation Center found that as much as half of the new drivers on the road -- after a widening project -- could be attributed to these factors.

It's likely playing a factor across Ohio, which has seen population outpace vehicle ownership in recent years.

Another factor at play with interstate stretches like I-75's Brent Spence Corridor: freight traffic. Bruning said increased freight traffic with the rebounding economy was the biggest motivator for adding capacity to that stretch of highway.

"You have to address the freight at some point," he said.

Looking ahead

As far as road projects go, state-maintained highways make up less than a quarter of Ohio's roads, Bruning said. Most decisions about roads are made by counties and cities.

Some final phases of the Mill Creek Expressway project are among those projects planned but -- pending a new revenue source -- do not have funding. Those projects, all pre-construction, include:

  • Adding a fourth lane between Paddock and Kemper roads
  • Bridge construction over the Mill Creek to Galbraith Road
  • Work along the northern approach toward the Brent Spence Bridge

But there are relatively few projects after those already allocated existing dollars that include a widening component.

Along with the final phases of the Mill Creek Expressway improvements, the crumbling, 86-year-old Western Hills Viaduct could continue to sit waiting for a much needed replacement.

Smeeks said the looming lack in funding leaves him feeling frustrated but also apathetic: "Frustration, possibly, and a kind of apathy because it’s been this way for so long."

DeWine pitched to the General Assembly in February an 18-cent increase to the state motor fuel tax. The State House of Representatives later approved a budget that included a lower increase of 10.7 percent, but also included an additional $100 million toward public transit spending. Two weeks later, an Ohio Senate committee further reduced the gas tax hike to a 6-cent increase.

Following the Senate's proposed amendments, DeWine issued a statement saying the 18-cent increase is the only way to save Ohio's roads.