Public safety in Ohio received a much needed boost recently when the Ohio Department of Transportation announced it has formed a $120 million partnership with counties and cities in the state to repair or replace 220 structurally deficient bridges over the next three years.
This partnership responds responsibly to heightened public awareness of the severity of bridge decay and its inherent threats to public safety in Ohio and the nation.
As The Vindicator reported in depth last spring, Ohio has about 44,000 bridges statewide, including about 27,000 that are maintained by counties and cities, 5,700 of which have been rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. In the Mahoning Valley, the American Society of Civil Engineers reports 85 of Trumbull County’s 406 bridges — or 21 percent — are structurally unsound. Mahoning and Columbiana counties fared slightly better, with structural deficiency rates at 13 percent and 11 percent, respectively.
According to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, funding for the bridge-repair partnership comes as a result of reducing overhead costs and improving efficiency within ODOT. An unexpected infusion of $71 million in federal funds for bridge work this year certainly came in handy as well.
As ODOT Director Jerry Wray said, “This investment is going to pay benefits to millions of people — millions of Ohioans — for decades to come.”
Kasich shares Wray’s enthusiasm.
“We can’t do everything, but $120 million over the next three years is a really big deal,” Kasich said at a news conference about the program.
We agree that it is a big deal not only for the safety of millions of pedestrians and vehicle occupants who traverse Ohio’s network of unsafe bridges. It also fortifies the employment security of construction workers and contractors who will compete for bridge-repair jobs. That’s a $4.2 billion a year industry, Chris Runyan, president of the Ohio Contractors Association, told The Columbus Dispatch recently.
NORTHEAST OHIO GETS LITTLE
With all of those benefits, we hope officials planning projects in 2015 and 2016 focus on ensuring an equitable distribution of bridge- repair funds. The project list for the first year of the program, however, looks dismal for the Mahoning Valley and Northeast Ohio.
Of the 40 projects planned, only two are in the 18-county northeastern quadrant of the state (both in Stark County). In effect, a region that comprises more than 25 percent of total state population has received only 5 percent of the 2014 projects.
Cynics might chide that our disproportionately small share of the pie results from the region’s staunch Democratic political leanings amid the Republican occupation of the Statehouse and Legislature. We’d prefer to believe that the initial funding went to the most seriously deficient bridges and that our Valley and our region will be compensated in years two and three of the partnership when 180 more bridge projects will be undertaken.
Toward that end, city leaders and county engineers in the Mahoning Valley and throughout Northeast Ohio should lobby ODOT to ensure their many viable projects do not get ignored in future funding rounds.
Of course, the $120 million program is by no means any panacea for the widespread hazards that the state’s deficient bridges pose to public health and safety. Local and county leaders must continue to search for resources to lessen safety dangers through their own infrastructure programs. But given the double whammy of skyrocketing road and bridge repair costs and the increasingly tight financial nooses strangling local governments, the Ohio bridge partnership program provides a much needed and tangible stimulus.
Let’s work to ensure its span of positive impact stretches equitably across all quadrants of the state, including Northeast Ohio and the Valley.