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Ohio’s first public-private partnership deal for a highway bypass project is a waste of taxpayers’ transportation dollars, claims a report released last month by two consumer advocacy groups.
The Portsmouth Bypass project will build a new 16-mile highway with limited access so through traffic can avoid the downtown area of Portsmouth, Ohio. The new joint report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) and the Frontier Group labelled the project a “highway boondoggle.”
Leaders in Portsmouth, however, say the project is sorely needed and could help drive new business development to the area, especially because of the new road’s proximity to a major natural gas pipeline.
Money ‘could be better spent’
The project, also dubbed the Southern Ohio Veterans Memorial Highway, is being carried out by a public-private partnership with the Portsmouth Gateway Group, whose contractor partners include Dragados USA, Beaver Excavating Company and John R. Jurgenson Co., Inc. Crews broke ground on the project in June.
Portsmouth Gateway Group will borrow extensively and build the road for an estimated cost of $429 million. That private group will also be responsible for maintaining the road through 2053.
However, state funds will pay back any loans, interest and related charges over time. The state will reimburse maintenance and repair costs as well. The total public outlay over the deal’s 35-year term could be as much as $1.2 billion, the Columbus Dispatch reported last year.
Ohioans’ tax dollars will pay for that, said Lauren Aragon at U.S. PIRG, who worked on the report.
“This is definitely taxpayer funding,” Aragon said. “It’s a partnership with the private firm, but in the end the public is going to have to repay that private firm over time.”
More specifically, Ohioans will pay a big chunk of that money at the gas pumps.
“Every time you go to the gas pump, you’re paying the federal gas tax and you’re also paying the Ohio gas tax,” Aragon explains. Those taxes are 18 and 28 cents per gallon, respectively, and generally go towards road maintenance and related highway infrastructure.
However, the money is limited, and many of Ohio’s roads are in bad shape. Ohio’s road infrastructure got a grade of D on The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card for Ohio’s Infrastructure.
Aragon and her colleagues want available funds to address the greatest needs first. For the Portsmouth Bypass, however, she said the completed project would at best let drivers “avoid a few traffic lights.”
“There’s not heavy congestion in that area,” she continued.
The Frontier Group/U.S. PIRG analysts noted that the Ohio Transportation Review Advisory Council ranked the Portsmouth Bypass lower than all but three other highway projects in 2011 and 2012. Additionally, the report said, “Traffic on the roads that would be bypassed by the new highway has been stagnant for nearly a decade.”
Meanwhile, Aragon noted, the project would bring “all the pollution that goes with building that road,” and could even induce more people to drive.
The groups issuing the report are “not advocating for spending that money to create another kind of infrastructure,” Aragon added. Nonetheless, “because this is taxpayer-funded, that money should be used responsibly.”
“In Ohio there are over 2,000 bridges that are structurally deficient. There’s over 15 percent of major roads that need to rebuilt,” Aragon said. “That energy money could actually better be spent on both of those projects and on just maintaining a great infrastructure system for the people of the state, rather than adding a road that isn’t necessarily going to be that useful.”
‘Nice that we’re getting a share’
“The road has been planned for probably 40 years,” said Jason Kester, who serves as the development director for both the city of Portsmouth and Scioto County.
“We have a pretty bad congestion problem” in Portsmouth, Kester explained. “All truck traffic comes right through the middle of town.” Much of that is from trucks traveling through to Kentucky, he said, and “it’s taking a very significant toll on our roads.”
An extensive statistical analysis by the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) backs up the decision to build the 16-mile highway, Kester added.
Kester also criticized a 2015 Plain Dealer article that called the project “ODOT’s all-time mega-project,” overtaking the expense of a massive project replacing elevated highways in Cleveland.
“Most of the highway funding in the state of Ohio occurs north of I-70, so it’s nice that we’re getting a share” in Appalachia, Kester said.
The planned road could affect economic development in the Portsmouth area as well.
The road was initially planned “to end isolation of the area and provide the roadway connections needed to attract economic development and jobs,” said Kathleen Fuller at ODOT. “Now that the project is moving forward, economic development leaders in southern Ohio have been getting interest from companies looking to invest and create jobs.”
In fact, she noted, part of the $429 million will come from the Appalachian Regional Commission, although the amount was not specified.
While Aragon suggested diverting traffic out of town would hurt local businesses, Kester disagreed, saying he’s seen “at least a 200 percent” increase in inquiries for development along the Ohio River.
“A lot of our key development sites are towards the east of the city where the bypass comes back in to US-52,” Kester said. “That whole area is really prime for development.”
The boom in the shale gas industry plays a role as well. The end of the bypass will come within five miles of two major natural gas pipelines, Kester said.
In his view, “new access to transportation added with some of the shale play activities in eastern Ohio” would make local development attractive for companies that might want to have combined heat and power operations.
“Since the by-pass project has been announced [in 2013], our community has been under consideration for at least seven” development projects, ranging from $500 million to $1.6 million, “all within five minutes of the eastern terminus of the bypass,” Kester said.
“Obviously,” he added, “if any of those would actually decide to locate here, that would be life-changing for this community.”
Fix it first?
At first glance, the Portsmouth Bypass project seems inconsistent with ODOT’s reported emphasis on a fix-it-first strategy to prioritize repairs on existing roads, said Brian Kunkemoeller of the Ohio Sierra Club. In his view, such an approach to prioritize repairs over new construction would be “an important step.”
That approach is already in place and is not at all new, said Matt Bruning at ODOT.
“ODOT has focused on preservation for decades,” Bruning said. “Ninety-three percent of our construction budget goes to fixing existing roadways and bridges,” he added. “Over the past decade we’ve expanded our lane miles in the state of Ohio by just over 1%.”
As construction proceeds, the Portsmouth Bypass is being added to those new lane miles. And the project’s size, cost and other factors suggest some controversy will continue.
“I’ve seen what they’re building and it is a massive project,” Kunkemoeller said. “It’s kind of surprising to see the scale of it.”
“There’s nothing very positive about this road other than it’s just a huge waste of tax money,” Aragon added.