Ohio highway projects create jobs

COLUMBUS – Ohio wants to spend $57 million in federal stimulus money on highway projects that won’t begin for years, an unusual strategy for money that President Barack Obama said should be used to give the economy an immediate job-creating jolt. Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland and the state’s transportation officials passed over some ready-to-go construction projects and steered about 7 percent of their $774 million share for planning and preliminary studies. That infuriated some local leaders who hoped the money would build even more new bridges or resurface roads in the cash-strapped state, where unemployment recently hit a 25-year high of 9.4 percent. ‘I could have dug the darn thing myself, that’s how shovel-ready we were,’ said Fostoria Mayor John Davoli, who sought $10 million to build bridges over two railroad crossings and was denied. The Federal Highway Administration has no other examples of states using stimulus money for planning, although some states haven’t completed their project lists and the agency hasn’t approved Ohio’s request, spokeswoman Nancy Singer said. The agency has to review the projects to ensure that they are eligible. While the overall approach to Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package is to get money to projects that can be started right away, planning is a legitimate use of economic stimulus money, said Jill Zuckman, spokeswoman at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Strickland said studies of long-term projects, as well as some types of preliminary work, position the state for future economic growth. That includes a two-year study of a highway and rail project on the east side of Cincinnati and the design of a 3-mile road connecting Interstate 490 to Cleveland’s art and museum district. The cost is $20 million apiece. ‘We’re putting planners and engineers to work, too, so I think it does fit the spirit of the stimulus package to develop projects today that have opportunities for tomorrow,’ said Scott Varner, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation. Pennsylvania put all of its highway stimulus money – $1 billion – into construction. So did Oregon. ‘We wanted work boots on the ground,’ said Patrick Cooney, spokesman for the Oregon Transportation Commission, which approved $234 million for highway projects. In announcing Ohio’s economic stimulus projects in March, Strickland estimated 21,257 jobs would be created or retained, and most of the money will be used to repave roads, reconfigure streets and repair bridges across the state. Some of the work is expected to begin in May. The state has targeted 149 projects to get a piece of the stimulus money, including $200 million to help build a new five-lane Interstate 90 Innerbelt Bridge in Cleveland and $150 million to complete a bypass of state Route 33 around Nelsonville in southeast Ohio. Those projects will get the largest share of the money. The projects were selected by a special team within ODOT that reviewed 4,600 applications from cities, businesses and individuals. Priority was given to those that would maximize job creation and economic growth, with agency director Jolene Molitoris having the final say, Varner said. The agency balanced short-term projects designed to get people working right away with projects that have long-term potential and need further studying, he said. The two-year, $20 million engineering and environmental study in Cincinnati will lay the foundation for a $1 billion highway, bus, bike and rail system that will open up economic development in the city and its eastern suburbs, eventually leading to 10,000 new jobs, said Hamilton County deputy engineer Theodore Hubbard. Without the stimulus money, the project would have lingered, he said. Still, no money for future construction has been secured. Other projects in the planning stage could get some of the stimulus funds. The state plans to spend $7 million of the money for engineering and design work on the Ohio Hub – a plan for high-speed rail – and give $10 million to ODOT to spend on various design work statewide. Construction companies, which are evaluating projects to bid on, generally are happy with the list, said Chris Runyan, president of the Ohio Contractors Association. ‘It’s going to give the construction industry a much-needed shot in the arm,’ he said. Money for planning, while it won’t put shovels in the ground, still keeps transportation projects moving forward, he said. Ohio’s push to fund transportation projects that can encourage economic development also shows up in the decision to buy heavy machinery at maritime ports. The number of jobs created by these projects isn’t easily defined. About $6.8 million in stimulus money will be spent to demolish and replace cranes at the Port of Toledo. As business grows, more skilled crane operators will be hired, but how many is uncertain, said Carla Firestone, spokeswoman for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority. About $5.7 million will build an overhead bridge crane and conveyor system that will allow a shipping port in Wellsville in eastern Ohio to become fully operational. The bridge crane will load cargo from a barge on the Ohio River onto trucks or railcars. The number of jobs directly or indirectly related to the purchase is hard to pin down, said Tracy Drake, executive director of the Columbiana County Port Authority. The port’s recent work included loading 13 40-ton rocket segments developed at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland onto a cargo vessel bound for the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Project Plans Ohio’s highway projects still in the planning stages that would use federal stimulus money: – $20 million for a preliminary engineering study of a rail system and new roads on the east side of Cincinnati. – $20 million for the design of a three-mile road connecting Interstate 490 to Cleveland’s art and museum district. – $10 million for the Ohio Department of Transportation to spend on various design work for projects statewide. – $7 million for engineering and design work on the Ohio Hub, a plan for high-speed rail.