COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Gov. Ted Strickland again warned of a tough budget road ahead Feb. 15, this time suggesting that a state transportation fund that pays for major road improvement projects has committed to more projects than it can afford.
But those who oversee the fund said the overages Strickland detailed in a speech to Ohio newspaper editors are built into the transportation budgeting process because so many major projects are pushed off course by delays.
If spending continues as projected, the fund run by the Transportation Review Advisory Council would have a deficit of $1.2 billion by 2014, Strickland said.
“I’m concerned that through the years TRAC has made more commitments to our local communities than there are funds to finance them,” Strickland said.
In January, the Democratic governor said the upcoming state budget could be as much as $1.5 billion tighter than former Gov. Bob Taft had projected in its first year and urged Ohioans and Statehouse lobbyists not to get their hopes up.
On the transportation matter, Strickland said he will order his new transportation director, James Beasley, and the TRAC board to determine the cause of the deficit the fund will take on over the next seven years.
“We must instill more fiscal responsibility into the TRAC process,” he said.
The nine-member council, which Beasley will chair when he takes over March 5, oversees funding requests for road projects costing more than $5 million, dictating transportation priorities through a point-based rating system. Its most recent budget was approved in January.
Strickland said it is too soon to tell whether the review he’s requested will affect projects already in the pipeline.
“I would hope we wouldn’t have to cancel projects, but we’re going to have to take a hard look at our situation,” he said.
The board’s budget is in balance through 2008, figures show, but commitments begin to exceed the money available beginning in 2009.
Strickland said flat revenue from the state’s gas tax and the rising costs of construction and energy may contribute to the diverging numbers.
But Bill Gardner, a member of the TRAC board, said all those factors were taken into account by the council’s budgeting staff.
“We’ve always overfunded,” Gardner said. “Then that eventually shrinks down to the [amount of] the budget, because everything everybody says they’re going to do doesn’t get done. Maybe engineering work is delayed or there’s an environmental hold up.”
Scott Varner, a spokesman of the Ohio Department of Transportation, said the board’s rules allow it to commit as much as 20 percent more money that it has budgeted.
“For whatever reason, projects will stall or be delayed,” he said. “This way, there are projects ready to go if others are stalled.”
Gardner, who was appointed to the council by Republican Senate President Bill Harris, said Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher foreshadowed the administration’s transportation approach in a speech to regional transportation leaders a year ago.
“He said we’re going to concentrate on maintenance and do less on new development,” Gardner said. “I took that to mean we’re going to freeze new projects, and at our last meeting we basically did not fund any new projects.”
Strickland said he would like to see economic development weigh more heavily in the council’s decision — after it has taken safety and congestion into account.