The State DOT Revolving Door: Meet Jerry Wray, Ohio’s “Asphalt Sheriff”

One of the top goals of the national transportation reform movement is to get state DOTs to spend their money more wisely. The feds distribute tens of billions of dollars to state DOTs each year with very few strings attached. But for every state like Massachusetts or Tennessee that’s decided to shift toward building walkable streets and away from highway construction, there are plenty of state DOTs that continue to build very expensive, sprawl-inducing roads, even though they can’t afford to maintain what they already have.

ODOT Director Jerry Wray, a career-long friend of asphalt. Photo: ##http://www.toledoblade.com/State/2011/07/26/Turnpike-plan-touted-by-Kasich-in-Toledo.html##Toledo Blade##

In many states, big decisions about how to spend money have less to do with the actual public benefits of a given project than the rewards that accrue to elected officials. With billions of dollars at stake, transportation departments can be used to reward favored constituencies or to achieve other political goals. Witness Birmingham’s $4.7 billion zombie highway, which won’t do much besides line the pockets of politically-connected companies. Or how about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision in 2010 to kill the ARC rail tunnel connection to New York’s Penn Station, which threw away years of preparation so Christie could win national attention from movement conservatives and appeal to his suburban base by diverting the funds to roadbuilding.

Sometimes transportation decisions amount to little more than cronyism, which is never more obvious than when a governor hires an industry lobbyist to run his state DOT. For this series, which we’re calling “The Revolving Door,” Streetsblog looked at three states where governors have gone so far as to put a lobbyist for the roadbuilding or energy industries in charge of transportation policy.

To kick off the Revolving Door series, we’re taking a look at Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jerry Wray, nicknamed the “asphalt sheriff,” who managed to sandwich a lobbying position at an asphalt industry group in between his two terms as ODOT head.

“ODOT is a machine for the road contractors. Everything that they do is intended to produce more gas tax revenue so there can be more revenue for ODOT.”

– Ken Prendergast, All Aboard Ohio

Wray first filled ODOT’s top office under Republican Governor George Voinovich in the 1990s, when he was often accused of favoring the asphalt industry, according to the Columbus Dispatch. After “retiring” from ODOT in 1999, he became vice president of Flexible Pavements of Ohio, an asphalt industry lobbying group. He was then brought back into the public sector when Republican Governor John Kasich took office in 2009. Major road builders like Columbus-based Kokosing Construction and its founder Bill Burgett were among Kasich’s largest donors.

Right away, Wray and Kasich let Ohioans know they had new priorities for the state — the kind of priorities that would certainly please Wray’s former employer. In an interview with the Columbus Dispatch, Kasich said he and Wray shared a similar philosophy on transportation: namely, a deeply partisan obsession with obstructing the state’s passenger rail plans — the “3C” train service connecting Columbus, Cincinnati, and Columbus Cleveland that the Obama administration had pledged $400 million to start up. “His people that he will bring on will understand: no games, no politics, no train,” Kasich said of Wray. Killing the train — which would have cost the state a paltry $17 million annually to operate, less than the state currently spends cleaning and maintaining highway rest areas — was Kasich’s first act after being elected.

Wray and Kasich made it clear they were no friends of city transit either. Upon his appointment, Wray told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that promises of $150 million in additional funding for state transit agencies made by outgoing Governor Ted Stickland were null and void.

“It is available for other uses,” Wray said. “We’ll also have to look at whether or not it needs to be used to help with the general revenue fund and balancing the state budget.”

Ken Prendergast of the rail advocacy group All Aboard Ohio says Wray’s ODOT might better be known as the Department of Highways, because “anything you’re trying to do other than highways is not an ODOT concern.”

“ODOT is a machine for the road contractors,” he said. “Everything that they do is intended to produce more gas tax revenue so there can be more revenue for ODOT.”

Since coming into office barely two years ago, Wray has taken an axe to nearly every major project that would benefit rail, transit, or city development. The Cincinnati Streetcar, which the Strickland administration had rated as the best transportation project in the state, was stripped of all $50 million of promised funding. Cleveland’s “West Shoreway” highway teardown got similar treatmentfrom the state’s “non-partisan” funding board.

After Wray's ODOT stripped more than $50 million in promised funds for the Cincinnati Streetcar, project leaders had to scale back plans. Image: ##http://www.urbancincy.com/2009/11/memorial-day-2012/## Urban Cincy##

In contrast, sprawl projects like an $83 million bypass around the tiny Appalachian city of Portsmouth (population, 20,000) have received generous support [PDF].

Recently, Wray again came under fire for favoring the asphalt industry. Last May, the Columbus Dispatch reported that Wray had beefed up a price-stabilization program for asphalt, where the state steps in and absorbs additional costs if the price of oil — a key ingredient in asphalt — rises between the time of bidding and construction. Concrete pavers say it amounts to a wasteful subsidy for their asphalt industry competitors, and the FHWA agrees, recommending in a 2008 memo that states avoid the practice for projects that concrete and asphalt pavers both bid on.

Meanwhile, Kasich is desperately searching for new highway money to make up for lagging state gas tax revenues and recently set out to find private funds to prop up ODOT. His bid to sell the state’s rest stops flopped. Then, he made leasing the Ohio Turnpike to a private company a key administration priority, only to abandon plans late last year.

Prendergast says declining vehicle miles traveled is throwing a wrench in ODOT’s whole business model. Rather than rein in spending however, Prendergast says ODOT has been borrowing against future gas tax revenues that may or may not materialize.

“Miles driven is dropping,” Prendergast said. “The number of people getting drivers licenses is dropping. The amount of gas tax revenue is falling. Their presumption is that if they can add more lane miles they will reverse that trend.”

  • Daniel Winks

    It’s amazing how quickly someone removed my posting of this article from the Ohio Department of (Auto) Transportation’s Facebook page…

    You’d think that they are ashamed of how they run things or something.  If they ran an honest agency, working for the people and not for a few rich politicians and their cronies, they wouldn’t have to be quite so quick to remove exposé-type articles on how corrupt they truly are.

  • John

    On the bright side though, they’re considering a major statewide managed lanes project.  I’d rather have HOV and HOT than more free lanes.

  • Daniel Winks

    @007aca14ba0bbb89b00f74584da910e7:disqus I’d rather have less lanes, period.  Roads should be build to carry the average hourly demand, not peak.  Building dozen-lane wide freeways just to facilitate exurb-dwellers during an hour or two per day with the lanes being mostly empty the rest of the time is silly.  No one’s forcing these people to live 40 miles from work.  No one’s forcing them to drive a car.  If we built and maintained 2 or 3 lane freeways there’d be a lot of money left over for actual transit projects.  
    If enough people sat in hour-long traffic jams, they’d pressure their employers to offer 8-4 shifts, 7-3, 10-6, etc.  They’d reconsider moving 40+ miles from work if doing so meant sitting in traffic for 2-3 hours a day.  The driving base is shrinking.  Miles driven is decreasing.  Oil is running out (and electric cars, hydrogen, etc won’t be able to fill that gap, not not and probably not ever).  Youth see cars as more of a shackle than some sort of freedom.  These massive road projects are nothing more than wasted dollars.  We need to maintain what we have, remove what’s not getting used and spend our time and money consolidating sprawl, building mass transit and human powered transit routes, and better preparing for the future which is rapidly approaching.Waiting until we’ve nearly run out of oil is a recipe for disaster.   We need to prepare now, while we have the means.  Trying to build mass transit with machinery running on oil that’s at $500+ a barrel will be very costly.  It’s far better to do it while oil is still relatively cheap. We need to look forward as a species, not backward.  Freeways and automobiles are certainly not the future.

  • John

     There aren’t many dozen wide lane freeways in Ohio.

  • Anonymous

    Typo in 6th paragraph: missing Cleveland.

  • Hharding5

    NJ Governor Christie’s public justifications for his decision to Ax the Hudson River tunnel project may have been stupid, but the decision was fully justified by the project’s failure to connect with New York’s Penn Station. Current plans better address the real regional and national mobility needs for greater through rail passenger traffic capacity across the greater New York City area.
    Portsmouth Ohio desperately needs to have the high volume of through traffic on  US 23 and US 52 removed from its crowded downtown streets. Removal of this traffic would vastly improve life for Portsmouth residents who now must live with the noise and pollution of this heavy through traffic. Typically, ODOT’s bypass plan appears excessively complex and costly, but that does not negate the need to remove long distance travel from Portsmouth city streets. Unfortunately, this need extends far south of where ODOT’s bypass would end – at least as far south as I-64 in Kentucky and West Virginia.  

  • I also posted this story on ODOT’s facebook page. Within 60 seconds, it was removed.

  • Nathanael

    Wow.  He’s LITERALLY subsidizing asphalt, the way Iran and Venezuela subsidize gasoline:

    ” Wray had beefed up a price-stabilization program for asphalt, where the
    state steps in and absorbs additional costs if the price of oil — a key
    ingredient in asphalt — rises between the time of bidding and
    construction. ”

    Unacceptable.

  • Nathanael

    Hharding5: as many small towns have discovered, “removing through traffic” from the downtown streets also removes the volume of people who used to stop downtown, buy gas, buy lunch, and generally patronize local businesses.

    A recent highway grade separation project in upstate NY, on what is now Interstate 86 (formerly NY 17), destroyed the business district of Horseheads.

    Hhardingd: does Portsmouth, Ohio really want to dry up and blow away as everyone drives past it?  If so, then it needs the highway bypass.  If not, then it should be fighting *against* the highway bypass.  I thought most of Appalachia was trying to survive, not trying to hasten its depopulation.

    Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.

  • I’m sorry, I just have a terrible time imagining downtown Portsmouth as overcrowded. Last time I was there is looked a lot more like it was hanging on by a thread. 

  • Hharding5

    Angie & Nathanael — When I drove through Portsmouth on U.S. 23 on Monday of this week, I was on a very highly congested street. The streets carrying U.S. 52 were also congested. Such congestion does not well serve the health or economy of Portsmouth and its residents. Further south on U.S. 23, in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, I visited numerous bypassed towns that appeared to be thriving and were not choked with through traffic. Thus there is evidence readily available along U.S. 23 that a bypass need not decimate the local economy. 

    It is true that Portsmouth is in an economically depressed area and needs economic development. One way to bring such help to Portsmouth — and other towns in Appalachia — is to develop a “Livable Cities” plan that is eligible for federal transportation, housing and other agency funding. Traffic taming is a central component of livable cities development, but also includes general economic development planning and assistance. Cities and regions thrive when people have reasons to want to live in such places. Those that hang on by a thread of through traffic are unlikely to be attractive to many people, either current or potential residents.

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