The on-again, off-again McCord Road Underpass project is on again and is now expected to start as early as late next year.
Lower cost estimates and new funds set aside by the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments have cut the state's share of project costs enough that construction will be funded during fiscal 2014 instead of languishing for more than a decade, state and county transportation officials announced Thursday.
During a "working session" meeting Thursday, the Ohio Transportation Review Advisory Council accepted Ohio Department of Transportation plans to provide a $1,653,000 contribution from its "major-new" construction fund -- a small fraction of the $13.3 million previously budgeted from that fund, but not forecast to be available until 2023.
Project planners said the nearly $12 million difference was bridged with $4.5 million in additional federal funds the metropolitan council assigned to the project and a substantial reduction in estimated costs for both land acquisition and construction.
The project now is budgeted to cost about $28 million, including money already spent for planning and design. As recently as a year ago, it was pegged at $41.6 million -- at least in part because inflation was factored in for a later start.
After the TRAC meeting, Mike Gramza, the Ohio Department of Transportation's district planning and engineering administrator in Bowling Green, said construction is most likely to begin in early 2014, but "it could possibly be earlier." ODOT's 2014 fiscal year starts on July 1, 2013.
"It's a great day for all who've fought so hard to accelerate the schedule," said Lucas County Engineer Keith Earley.
Mr. Earley thought he had funding for the project -- designed to reduce traffic delays and safety concerns at the busy McCord crossing of Norfolk Southern's main East Coast-Chicago rail line -- nailed down last year when TRAC budgeted the $13.3 million for it starting in 2015.
Although project planning started early last decade, underpass construction gained impetus in 2010 when two Springfield High students ran in front of, and were struck by, an Amtrak train while walking across the McCord crossing.
But the Kasich administration announced early this year that Ohio's "major-new" funding was significantly over-extended and that many long-anticipated projects would be delayed for a decade or longer. The McCord project was initially put off to 2028, then advanced to 2023 on the basis of other cost savings ODOT had identified in its operations.
After that announcement, Mr. Earley's office applied for a $10 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant for the project, but that application was turned down in June.
Mr. Earley said Thursday that even then, he held out hope for the project, even while fretting publicly that some of its federal-grant funding would expire before he could plug the gap in its budget.
"There were glimmers of hope all along," he said. "I wasn't without hope at any time."
Mr. Gramza on Thursday said the project's new budget includes about $15.8 million channeled through TMACOG, including funding from Mr. Earley's budget, the village of Holland, and Norfolk Southern but primarily federal dollars; about $10.6 million from a state grade-crossing elimination fund created in 2000 by the Taft administration, and the $1,635,000 from ODOT.
Steve Faulkner, an ODOT spokesman, said no formal action was needed from the advisory council to approve the "major-new" funding, because the project was already on a TRAC-approved list.
"We're going to be able to find that money somewhere to get this project done," Mr. Faulkner said, calling the McCord project an example of the "new reality" in which local sources will be necessary to complement state funding for major projects.
An estimated 17,600 vehicles traveled McCord at the tracks on an average day last year, while about 75 trains per day use the railroad, including four daily Amtrak trains that have a 79-mph speed limit.
"People do not realize the benefits from this," Mr. Earley said, citing forecasts that train traffic could double after a Panama Canal enlargement project increases container shipments through East Coast ports to the Midwest.
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