By Justin Wier
As Mahoning County Engineer Pat Ginnetti attributes a growing number of potholes to his office’s stagnant budget, state officials identify frozen budgets as a statewide problem that will require attention from Columbus.
“We’re spiraling backward,” Ginnetti said at the March 1 county commissioners meeting. “If I put all [of the engineer’s office budget] into roads, we couldn’t touch the issue.”
“There’s no money tree,” Ginnetti added.
“[Ginnetti’s] statement covers the entire state,” said Dean Ringle, executive director of the County Engineer’s Association of Ohio. “It’s been 13 years since any increases occurred. From that point, construction costs have skyrocketed.”
Ohio’s gas tax has remained at 28 cents since 2005. That tax, along with license-plate fees, provides the primary source of funding for county engineer’s departments across the state.
In Mahoning County, the combined revenue has hovered around $10.8 million, before adjusting for inflation for the past eight years.
Other states have done a better job of funding infrastructure projects by either creating infrastructure funds or increasing the gas tax, Ringle said.
Pennsylvania has raised its gas tax by 27 cents since 2014, making it the highest in the nation at 58 cents per gallon.
“You want to be somewhat competitive with the rest of the states,” Ringle said.
State Rep. John Boccieri of Poland, D-59th, said there hasn’t been much discussion in Columbus about raising the gas tax.
“There hasn’t been really any desire for movement in the Republican-controlled General Assembly to think about how we’re going to fix our roads,” Boccieri said. “States around us have not followed the same track as Ohio. They’ve raised their gas tax, and they have better roads.”
He said legislators floated the idea of giving counties the ability to increase the gas tax by up to five cents, but it didn’t gain much momentum.
He added that both state and federal governments need to address infrastructure problems.
“Our roads and our interstate roads, for the first time I’ve seen in my adult life, are just in really, really poor shape,” Boccieri said.
Interstate 680 in Youngstown, which is scheduled for repaving this summer, has been dotted with potholes that have incapacitated several cars.
State Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, said it comes down to resources.
“This directly reflects the Kasich mindset of cutting taxes rather than investing in the future,” he said.
He added that he would demand any increase in the gas tax goes directly into infrastructure upgrades.
“I want to make sure that that money, every cent of it, goes into the roads that people drive on,” Schiavoni said.
The other issue with transportation funding concerns distribution.
Of the state’s gas-tax revenue, 11 percent of the total is divided equally among the state’s 88 counties.
That results in a county such as Mahoning, with 485 miles of roads to maintain, receiving the same $2.3 million in funding as Columbiana County, with 169 miles of roads to maintain.
This is offset by license- plate fee revenue, which corresponds to a county’s population.
But while Boccieri called this a “Robin Hood” approach, citing pristine roads in Carroll County, Ringle argued it’s necessary because small counties receive less license-plate fee revenue.
“You don’t want to take the same piece of pie and slice it up differently,” Ringle said. “You need more pie.”
He allowed that future increases in the gas tax could be distributed differently, noting that most roads and bridges are maintained locally.
Ringle said the key is a consistent source of revenue so not only counties, but also cities and townships, can stay on a consistent repair schedule.
“If you don’t repair and resurface on a consistent schedule, the roads get torn up, and it’s more expensive to repair them,” he said.
Schiavoni said the amount of money is a bigger problem than the distribution, and he believes the public would support a reasonable increase in the gas tax.
“As long as people saw the work being done and saw the money going into the infrastructure, they’d be OK with it,” he said.