COLUMBUS - Despite Ohio's fiscal crisis, a special task force created by Gov. Ted Strickland said yesterday that Ohio must not be afraid to make bold new investments in its transportation infrastructure or create taxes and raise fees to pay for it.
"If Ohio wants to compete and create growth, prosperity, and new jobs, transportation is one of the key drivers to doing it," said Ty Marsh, president of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and the chairman of Ohio's 21st Century Transportation Priorities Task Force.
"We already have an asset in transportation," he said. "We want to make sure we maintain that asset, but also to utilize and expand other modes and connect them in a way that drives economic opportunity."
The 58-page report suggests that Ohio should allow its current 28-cents-a-gallon motor fuel tax on gasoline and diesel fuel to adjust with inflation, ask voters to approve a new "special motor fuels tax" that could be used for nonhighway purposes like mass transit, and raise fees on driver licenses, vehicle registrations, and cargo containers.
It also recommends that Ohio look at a new "vehicle miles traveled" tax that would tax motorists on how far they drive rather than the number of gallons of gasoline they buy.
Although the far-reaching report also makes recommendations related to the expansion of alternative forms of transportation, bonds for highway projects, and improved safety, its proposals related to funding are likely to get the most attention.
"The governor looks forward to taking a look at the ideas and recommendations," said Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey.
"That said, the governor does not believe that a tax increase in the midst of an economic recession would be productive."
Mr. Strickland has warned that the state's economic crisis could lead to a hole as large as $7.3 billion in the next two-year state operating budget, which is to be considered this year.
At about the same time, lawmakers will consider a separate transportation budget that has its own constitutionally separated funding sources, mostly fuel taxes and license and registration fees.
Tony Reams, president of the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, was a member of the 60-member task force. He said members don't expect the governor and lawmakers to embrace everything, but he said the state cannot afford to wait too long.
"We recognized as we moved through the process that there are a lot of things we ought to do and would like to do, and none of them are free," Mr. Reams said.
"They need to be paid for. We knew that was going to be an issue and knew that that would be the first thing the media would pick out of it.
"But the primary thing we kept in mind is what is the cost of not moving the transportation system forward," Mr. Reams said.
Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner also was on the task force. His staff said he was unavailable for comment as he prepared for last night's State of the City address.
Lawmakers last voted to raise the gasoline tax in 2003, when they approved a gradual increase of 6 cents a gallon that ultimately resulted in the 28 cents-a-gallon tax as of 2005.
They also increased fees at that time.
Those increases were supported overwhelmingly, even among Republicans who typically opposed tax boosts.
But that was before gasoline prices spiked to $4 a gallon last summer and the bottom dropped out of the state and national economies.
Sen. Stephen Buehrer (R., Delta), who was chairman of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee in the just-ended legislative session, said he doesn't see much of an appetite this time around for higher fuel taxes.
"A number of us felt we did our part by putting Ohio out in front and recognizing several years ago that we needed additional resources for a number of projects, none more important than U.S. 24 in our part of the state and the I-280 bridge in Toledo," he said.
"We felt Ohio needed to be in a position to put down dollars so that the feds could match it. I think any debate on increasing taxes, if there is going to be one, has to be at the federal level," he said.
"Our infrastructure problems are bigger than any one state," Senator Buehrer said.
President-Elect Barack Obama is considering a major investment in infrastructure improvements as part of an economic stimulus package he wants to sign soon after taking office.
Mr. Strickland created the task force last year to broaden regional debate on where the state should place its transportation priorities.
A hearing was held in Toledo on June 10.
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