Ohio’s “Jobs and Transportation Plan”: A Blueprint for Robbing Young People

Ohio plans to borrow (and never repay) transportation revenues from future generations in order to prop up an unsustainable transportation system. Image: Ohio Department of Transportation

The other day I stumbled upon a document from the Ohio Department of Transportation called Ohio’s Job’s and Transportation Plan [PDF]. As I read it, I couldn’t help but feel pessimistic about the direction of the state.

The plan is to borrow $1.5 billion against future Ohio Turnpike revenues, match it with federal funds, and spend it on highways. If you’re a young person living in the state of Ohio — like me — you should be outraged.

What they are proposing here is taking anticipated transportation revenues from future generations. Why? To prop up a transportation spending paradigm from a bygone era. Gas tax revenues, never indexed for inflation, have been declining, a trend that has been exacerbated by the rise in fuel efficient cars. But some important interests — namely local political officials and the construction lobby — have yet to adjust their expectations.

Any responsible approach to this problem would be to raise new revenues, most likely through a gas tax increase. But Governor John Kasich, declaring “a gas tax increase would kill jobs,” has instead decided to take the credit card route. It isn’t clear how the money will be spent, although ODOT makes some vague references to shoring up “locally-owned bridges” and “sound walls,” and repairing the turnpike bed. Crucially, what ODOT has not promised here is to stop expanding highway capacity in Ohio. So, the proposal contains neither a reliable long-term funding source nor a promise to reduce spending.

What ODOT has promised is that all the highway spending would be reserved for Northern Ohio. But Northern Ohio is one of the most rapidly shrinking regions of the country. Harvard economist Ed Gleaser once said, “The hallmark of declining cities is that they have too much housing and infrastructure relative to the strength of their economies.” We need less road infrastructure in this region, not more. If this money is spent on new highways, it will become an additional liability for future generations, without regard for their preferences.

Meanwhile, the evidence that additional highways will improve Ohio’s economy — the sole reason given for this spending spree — is debatable. An analysis by Houston writer Patrick Kennedy found Cleveland already has the fourth highest number of highway miles per capita of any city in the country. Studies have shown an inverse relationship [PDF] between highway miles in a city and property values. Cleveland and other Northern Ohio cities could serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of overbuilding highways. Instead, it’s as if we’ve learned nothing from five decades of experience with urban sprawl and abandonment.

Furthermore, Kasich and ODOT are willfully ignoring national and generational trends that indicate a clear, and perhaps permanent, reduction in driving. Across the country over the last few years, the number of total miles driven by Americans has declined measurably. Some people — ODOT officials among them — think that’s just because of the recession. But there is evidence it is more fundamental than that.

The baby boom generation is preparing to retire. As they do, they will likely drive far less less, as did the retiring generations that preceded them. Additionally, there is strong evidence that millennials are less interested in driving than their parents. A record-high 30 percent of American 19-year-olds are not licensed to drive. That is compared with only 12.8 percent in 1983, according to a University of Michigan study published last summer. Overall driving activity by this group is down 23 percent since 2001, according to a study by the Public Research Interest Group, while public transit and cycling activity soared.

And that’s the final insult. Not only are younger generations going to foot the bill for highways they, through their actions, are rejecting, there’s a good chance turnpike revenues will decline in the coming years — meaning younger generations could end up on the hook for the shortfall.

This is not the approach I would expect from a governor who has taken great pains to style himself as a fiscal conservative. The future earnings of Ohio’s children into the pockets of today’s contractors — that will be John Kasich’s legacy if Ohioans are irresponsible enough to accept this plan.