Last phase of I-75/I-475 project stalls

1/17/2012
BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS -- The final phase of the state's ongoing overhaul at the I-75/I-475 junction in central Toledo will be delayed indefinitely because of inadequate funding for major construction projects, the Ohio Department of Transportation said Tuesday as it unveiled a drastically curtailed long-range plan.

Other I-75 improvements in northwest Ohio remain on department drawing boards but also are still far from construction.

"We have for years terribly overprogrammed, and people had expectations that weren't realistic," said Jerry Wray, the transportation department director and chairman of the Transportation Review Advisory Council that sets Ohio's highway and bridge construction priorities.

"Previous administrations chose to continue with the process and listed projects as if there was money available when there isn't," he said.

He said the previous funding list proposed $1.6 billion in projects for which there isn't any money now.

After a public-comment period and a potential public hearing, a list is expected to be made final in either April or May.

The funding crunch does not affect construction of the new U.S. 24 expressway between Waterville and Napoleon, which began in 2009 and is scheduled for completion this year. But the crunch does delay for several years some "abandonment" projects for the existing U.S. 24, after which that roadway would be handed off to Lucas and Henry counties.


Also unaffected is reconstruction of I-475 between I-75 and Douglas Road, including ramps linking I-475 with I-75, began last year and is scheduled for completion next year, a $69 million project.

But the I-75/I-475 project's $173 million final phase, under which I-75 was to be widened between I-475 and Phillips Avenue, will be demoted from the advisory council's Tier 2 list to a reconstituted Tier 3, with no additional state money provided. The council's plan calls for the project to keep an existing $3.2 million earmarked for continued planning.

Without the I-75 widening, the transportation department will not be able to use both lanes of the ramp from eastbound I-475 to northbound I-75, which is being rebuilt and widened as part of the current I-475 reconstruction.

The ramp widening, a key part of the project, is intended to relieve a bottleneck that causes long backups and contributes to crashes on eastbound I-475 in the area.

The usefulness of the widened ramp from southbound I-75 to westbound I-475, also a bottleneck, also could be delayed until I-75 is widened.

Several other projects have been kept, at least for now, in Tier 2, meaning that planning or design funds have been included in the plan.

But a project-scheduling outlook included in the preliminary construction list goes out to the year 2036 with no construction money for any major projects in the Toledo area except the U.S. 24 "abandonment" conversions.

Local transportation planners, led by the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, also had sought to advance plans for a $90 million third-lane project on I-75 between Nebraska and Indiana avenues to Tier 2, but the committee is not recommending inclusion of that project anywhere on its list, and no money has been earmarked.

Jennifer Townley, deputy director of the transportation department's division of planning, told the commission that other portions of the I-75 upgrade that are ranked more highly must remain the top priority. "We feel we should develop those projects in advance of this project," she said. The assumption, she said, is that this project would "resurface" as other sections are completed.

Also scuttled in the plan are a new Maumee River bridge linking State Rts. 424 and 110 near the Campbell Soup plant in Napoleon and the proposed Willys-Phillips connector in Toledo.

The latter would provide a direct link between the former Jeep factory site and the Phillips interchange as an alternative route for traffic affected by ramp closings planned as part of the I-75 widening.

The new Tier 3 category consists of projects like the I-75 widening between I-475 and Phillips that are linked to others either being built or closer to construction.

The state plans to continue providing $3 million for preliminary engineering and design and will add a total of $2 million for those purposes toward completion of a six-lane section of I-75 from Phillips Avenue to I-280 in Toledo. But the total $46 million project remains in Tier 2, and construction is not imminent.

Similarly, the plan provides $3 million for planning of an overhaul of the junction of I-475 and U.S. 23 in Sylvania Township. But no construction money is forecast for that project, currently estimated at $181 million. Nor has funding been identified for a $61 million makeover for the nearby I-475 interchange at Central Avenue (U.S. 20), to which the plan assigns $4.5 million in engineering money.

The proposed addition of a third lane on I-75 from Wood County to Findlay, which carries an estimated cost of $130 million, is recommended to receive $5 million in additional money for preliminary engineering on top of the $1 million earmarked for it. It too would remain in Tier 2.

One project that didn't make the list at all is a proposed $22.6 million Campbell Soup bridge over the Maumee River between State Routes 110 and 424 in Napoleon.

William J. Brennan, the executive vice president of the Home Builders' Association of Greater Toledo Inc., and the northwest Ohio delegate to TRAC, said he was pleased with the rankings that the I-75 projects in Toledo got, even if funding was not assigned.

"There are just so few dollars that you can't do all of the projects," he said. "The fact that we've got most of I-75 still in there, I'm very pleased with that. We've got to find a way to get the rest of them back in. It may be time for the locals, maybe TMACOG or the districts, to sit down and talk about can we find some innovative ways to finance these.

"Assuming that all the assumptions we heard today are correct going forward, if we don't come up with something creative in terms of financing, it's way out there for these to happen," he said.

The proposed plan assumes that federal highway funds still will come to Ohio at the same rate that they have, that revenue from the state's 26 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax will climb slightly, and that inflation will remain stable, all of which are far from certain.

"Even at that, it's an optimistic presentation," Mr. Wray said.

He said he is not proposing an increase in the state gas tax that, after the federal government, is the largest source of revenue for major new construction and improvements.

"I don't think anybody is interested in that," he said.

Mr. Brennan, however, said he believes that the gas tax, which was last increased in 2005, should be a topic for discussion.

"You've got to keep up with the costs," he said. "I believe it should be on the table to talk about, definitely."

The state is looking at other ways of generating revenue for highway and bridge improvements, including leveraging the cash value of the 241-mile Ohio Turnpike across northern Ohio, tolling some roads or bridges, privatizing rest stops, and fostering public-private partnerships.

"There are projects throughout the state that are so expensive and so important that tolling has to be considered an option," Mr. Wray said, citing the example of the Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River in Cincinnati. That's the bridge that President Obama stood under last year when calling for another round of economic-stimulus funding.

Among the ideas on the table for the Ohio Turnpike is leasing it to a private operator for an upfront sum, borrowing against it for money to spend across the state, or turning over its operations and toll revenue to the transportation department.

The state recently hired a consultant to conduct a study and make recommendations on the best way to proceed.

Staff writer David Patch contributed to this report.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com, or 614-221-0496.