Monday, June 15, 2009

Ohio Bill New Tool to Boost Regional Transportation Projects, Sponsors Say

Ohio Bill New Tool to Boost Regional Transportation Projects, Sponsors Say

Government, Business Potential Partners on Qualified Projects

Lawmakers Vest Final Vote with State Transportation Director

by John Michael Spinelli

June 14, 2009

COLUMBUS, OHIO: Ohio governments and businesses could form investments teams to construct and operate regionally significant intermodal systems including public transit, freight and passenger rail systems, according to testimony provide last Wednesday by two prominent Ohio senators from opposite ends of the state and political spectrum, who have teamed up to propose the formation of Transportation Innovation Authorities (TIA).

The senators, Capri Cafaro, a Democrat whose district is in northeast Ohio, close to Cleveland and Lake Erie, and Tom Niehaus, whose district is in the southwest, close to Cincinnati and the Ohio River, stood next to each other last week, when the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee convened for business.

In addition to a first hearing on the outline of TIAs (SB121), the approval of Governor's appointment including the naming by Ted Strickland earlier this year of Jolene Molitoris to be the Director of Transportation was also on the agenda. Molitoris became the first woman Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration when then-President Clinton appointed her in 1993 and the first woman to break the glass ceiling at the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) when Gov. Strickland promoted her this January to hold the reigns of and director the horsepower of the $7-plus billion agency that oversees federal and state funds.

Strickland and Molitoris are backing the re-establishment of passenger rail service, diagonally across the state from Cincinnati to Dayton to Columbus to Cleveland, they hope $400 million in one-time federal stimulus dollars will cover the estimated costs for re-starting a service that has not left or arrived in any station in nearly 42 years. Strickland said he does not want Ohio to be left behind as an island as federal plans to fund more passenger rail gathers momentum despite the few funds President Obama has made available for such uses.

Cafaro, whose dozen-member caucus elected her as its leader last November, said in written testimony that it was her hope that the bill "will enhance the efficiency of Ohio's transportation system by encouraging the investment of public and private resources in the planning and implementation of innovative transportation Projects."

Creating a new authority for a defined period of time, in a defined geographical jurisdiction, where various government subdivisions or agencies can rally around a common regional transportation project with private business would be a boon for a state whose state budget is imploding, leaving locals to look to each other instead of Columbus for help with transportation priorities and plans.

Addressing Chairman Sen. Tom Patton, a Republican from Cleveland, and committee members, Cafaro said that among the various funding sources made available to TIA by the bill, taxes imposed by the authority itself would be prohibited.

Niehaus, a term-limited Republican by 2012, said the "newness of the concept and the many questions surrounding its proposed utilization," were two reasons to yank it from the State Transportation bill agreed to in March. "TIAs offer a unique ability for the pubic and private sectors to partner on the construction and operation of conventional transportation investments, as well as on intermodal, light rail or intercity rail projects,"Niehaus said in prepared remarks.

While Molitoris was not personally in the room, the authority vested in the transportation director was. As currently proposed, the bill would give the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) authority to approve a TIA or any of its projects. Projects qualified for ODOT approval would be contingent upon local entities adopting planning and zoning guidelines with the TIA' defined geography that would "assure that land use is conducive to the purpose of the district and does not set the stage for unintended, unplanned and unprogrammed additional improvements."

Once a partnership is struck between ODOT and a TIA, the transportation fun could begin. ODOT, in return for the TIA meeting standards established in the bill, would be free to provide planning and project development funds, favorable financing and improved project scheduling to the communities of the TIA. One helpful resource would bee access to a "new generation of investment" by ODOT's State Infrastructure Bank. The OSIB could offer low interest loans for public transit, multi-modal projects and intercity rail, an extension of what it currently does for roadway and bridge projects. Niehaus said ODOT is working to identify $170 million over the next two years to expand the OSIB.

Responding to questions from Senators, Cafaro reminded them that, as the Highway Trust Fund runs dry due in part due to less gas tax being collected as people drive fewer miles as the price of gas rises, locals looking to each other is better than looking for help from Washington.

The inclusion of the word "innovation" in the new authority's title should extend to not only innovative ways of financing a shared public interest with infrastructure we are familiar with, but also to the "innovation" of the transportation technology being considered. For an advanced train technology like Tubular Rail, whose capital costs are significantly lower than traditional railroads, the news of what a TIA can do is good news. Other technologies that bring new solutions to old problems should be embraced not as red-haired outliers but as a new way of moving people and goods in new ways.

The debate over investing untold billions in roads and bridges and other conventional transportation modes, no matter how familiar we are with them, is an important one. The cost of standard infrastructure, including water, sewer and energy facilities, is at an all-time high. The cost of transportation infrastructure, from trolleys, to light rail to high-speed trains, is even more expensive, which means TIAs and the planning groups they are tied to need to look either for ways to reduce project costs or look for innovative transportation technology that is less capital intensive.

The Senate bill is the upper house's version of the House version, which Niehuas characterized as a "starting point for consideration."

John Michael Spinelli is a Certified Economic Development Financing Professional, business and travel writer and former credentialed Ohio Statehouse political reporter. He is registered to lobby in Ohio and is the Director of Ohio Operations for Tubular Rail Inc. SOA is now on Twitter at OhioNewsBureau and available for subscription to owners of Amazon's Kindle. To send a news tip or make comment, email

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