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: 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.

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