Ohio’s transportation budget bill hits a bump in the road
Ohio lawmakers have until the end of this month to pass a $13.5 billion, two-year transportation budget. The measure passed the Senate by a unanimous vote but hit a bump in the road with the House.
The bill is headed to a conference committee which will have to figure out how to maneuver a settlement on two big sticking points: funding for a rural highway fund and limits on force accounts.
The House-passed plan includes a $1 billion fund to be used for highways in rural areas. House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill), who’s from rural southern Ohio, says it’s money well spent.
“I think we should have more. It’s very important. And it’s not like it’s a — in my opinion, it’s not wasteful. It is actually a wise investment in the future of Ohio,” Stephens said.
But the Senate version stripped out that rural highway fund because it would use general revenue funds. And big projects in transportation budgets are usually funded by gas taxes. Stephens said he doesn’t think there’s a problem with using GRF money for this purpose and added it would free up transportation fund dollars for other projects.
Ohio lawmakers also differ over limits on force accounts. Those accounts, which spell out how construction money can be used, specify details on how dollars in a project can be allocated. Democrats and even some Republican lawmakers fear limits on force accounts could hurt labor unions and weaken prevailing wage on projects. The Senate version of the budget gave cities the ability to establish their own limits and allowed more than the caps written into current law if local governments don’t establish their own thresholds.
Budget includes some other not-so-controversial things
Lawmakers in both chambers said they want more safety provisions for railroads. They cited problems realized in the wake of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine last month that forced residents to be evacuated while authorities conducted a controlled burn of vinyl chloride from one of the tankers. The burn produced a black cloud that could be seen for miles and polluted streams and soil near the site.
Both chambers want several rail safety provisions, including a requirement for two-person crews on freight trains and wayside defect detectors placed between 10 and 15 miles apart. The rail industry has opposed both of those safety features, saying the state is preempted by federal law. Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) said lawyers have been looking at that.
“We think these things that are here are not preempted by the federal government. Of course, federal courts will end up making a decision, but we’re going to work with the House and decide how many of those provisions stay,” Huffman told reporters.
The budget also includes $3.6 billion for the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor project in Cincinnati. The project, funded in part with $1.6 billion in federal dollars, will include construction of a companion bridge over the Ohio River and improvements to an eight-mile corridor on both sides of it.
There’s also a provision that could lead to Amtrak building and providing passenger rail service in Ohio. The state is funding the feasibility study of what’s known as the “3C+D Corridor” which would connect Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton as well as a possible connection between Cleveland and Detroit with a stop in Toledo.