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Published: Sunday, 2/9/2003

Ohio fuel-tax hike targets road, bridge maintenance

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
A five-ton weight limit ensures that nothing bigger than a small delivery truck will cross the Bradner Road bridge, erected in 1899. A five-ton weight limit ensures that nothing bigger than a small delivery truck will cross the Bradner Road bridge, erected in 1899.
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PEMBERVILLE, Ohio - When the Bradner Road bridge over the Portage River opened more than 100 years ago, travelers got around on horses and wagons.

Today a five-ton weight limit ensures that nothing bigger than a small delivery truck will cross the spindly steel-truss span, erected in 1899 by Canton Bridge Co. Its one-lane width further reduces the risk of its being overloaded.

It's the sort of bridge that would have been replaced years ago if the budget had afforded it, County Engineer Tony Allion said. Its age, size, and weight capacity are ingredients for obsolescence.

“If it were unsafe, we'd close it,” Mr. Allion said.

While Wood County has one of Ohio's biggest backlogs of deficient bridges, Mr. Allion is far from unique in his plight.

He and his counterparts from across Ohio have warned for years that gasoline taxes and motor vehicle fees leave them far short of the funds they need for basic maintenance of local roads and bridges, much less major projects like replacing the Bradner Road bridge.

Big cities have strained to keep up with streets and bridges too - witness the 93-year old Martin Luther King, Jr., Bridge in Toledo, now in the beginning stages of a $35 million makeover after decades of neglect.

Finally, it seems, somebody in Columbus has listened.

In a proposal that largely reflected recommendations from a 20-member state Motor Fuel Task Force, Gov. Bob Taft last month proposed 6-cent-a-gallon increases in the state's taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, phased in over three years. Three quarters of the added revenue - about $96.5 million once it is fully implemented - would go to local projects, which are county, municipal, and township roads and bridges.

But even more important for locally maintained roads and bridges, increased motor-vehicle fees in the Taft proposal would reallocate to local projects about $190 million in fuel-tax money now used to pay for the State Highway Patrol.

According to engineers' association calculations, an additional $289 million per year would be available for local projects by 2007, when the Taft proposal would be implemented fully. Each county would get an estimated annual $1.22 million more, while each township would receive about $44,000.

Counties now receive about $1.34 million each from the gas tax.

Municipalities' share of fuel-tax revenue would continue to be divided based on vehicle registrations. Toledo's share of the estimated $123.7 million increase in municipal funding would be $5.35 million.

Densely settled and positioned astride major transportation corridors, Ohio has the nation's 10th-largest highway network, fifth-highest traffic volume, and second-largest bridge inventory.

Although most of Ohio's biggest bridges and highest-volume highways are state-maintained, local agencies are responsible for more than 190,000 lane miles of road and about 28,000 bridges, according to the task force report.

Lucas County Engineer Keith Earley, one of 18 county engineers who testified during task force hearings across the state last year, said revenue has remained relatively flat since the last fuel-tax increase 10 years ago but inflation has eroded the money's construction buying power by 20 percent.

While Lucas County is in relatively good shape, he said, “the small counties have lots of bridges, with hardly any money to take care of them.”

Mr. Earley said he spoke up at the task force in large part on behalf of Lucas County's municipalities, and Toledo in particular.

“Knowing how our revenue has been eroded by inflation, for the city of Toledo it's been even worse,” he said.

Work began in October on the $10.2 million first phase of Toledo's King bridge renovation, and Hussein Abounaaj, Toledo's commissioner of streets, bridges, and harbor, said city officials are moving forward with the $25.6 million second phase, which features an overhaul of the aging structure's draw spans. The work will be paid for with a mix of state, federal, and local funds.

The King project's urgency is forcing Toledo to take money away from other street and bridge improvements, Mr. Abounaaj said, so getting more money from the fuel tax would allow the city to reinstate many of those other projects.

Glenn Sprowls, executive director of the County Engineers' Association of Ohio, agreed that the governor's proposal “certainly will be a shot in the arm” for local road maintenance.

He said that in Ohio nearly 70 percent of county roads are less than 20 feet wide, and more than 11,000 county owned bridges are 50 years old or older. More than 6,000 bridges have only one lane.

Right now, “we don't have enough money to maintain them, much less upgrade them to current standards,” he said.

Northwest Ohio has it relatively easy because hilly terrain elsewhere in the state makes road widening more challenging, Mr. Sprowls said. But many local roads are paralleled by deep drainage ditches, which create their own engineering problems, and a few northwestern counties rank among those with the highest percentage of bridge deck area rated 4 (poor) or worse.

Wood County's 30.4 percent poor rating is sixth highest in the state, and the 139,121 square feet of bridge deck involved is second only to Cuyahoga County, according to engineers' association statistics.

The Bradner bridge is one of a half-dozen or so that are 100 years old or close to it, and Wood County is chock-full of concrete bridges built just after World War II that have reached the end of their normal lives, Mr. Allion said.

“Usually, if you can get a 50-year life out of a concrete bridge, you're doing quite well,” he said. “We have about 100 to do in the next 10 years, so it will be a challenge. Anything that increases our revenue will help.”

Defiance County Engineer Gaylon Davis said his county's relatively poor bridge rating is attributable to three large bridges that are programmed for repair.

“We have the Maumee, Tiffin, and Auglaize rivers coming together here, and we have part of the St. Joseph River too,” Mr. Davis said. “Those cause us to have larger bridges, and when you get those larger bridges, they skew the results.”

But if the governor's proposal passes the state legislature, he said, “We will be funded adequately to accomplish our needs. That will make a big difference for many, many counties in Ohio.”

Not everyone is looking forward to the day that the Bradner Road bridge is replaced with a modern span, however.

“I like the classic bridge,” said Jennifer Schuerman, who lives nearby on Elmore Road. And while the weight restriction forces her husband on a longer route when he trucks corn to market, she said, “It keeps the traffic off Bradner Road.”



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