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There’s a New Sheriff at Ohio DOT, and He Likes Asphalt

First there was the killing of 3C Rail. Now the Cincinnati streetcar is being led out to pasture. The way transportation projects are unfolding in Ohio, you'd almost think an asphalt industry veteran was heading up the state Department of Transportation.

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Sadly, you'd be right. ODOT Director Jerry Wray, Ohio's "Asphalt Sheriff," is currently presiding over the committee that will determine the fate of the Cincinnati streetcar. The Transportation Review Advisory Council was established by Wray himself in a previous stint as ODOT in 1997 in order to -- this is funny -- remove politics from the transportation funding decisions. Between sessions at ODOT, Wray kept himself busy working as an asphalt industry lobbyist.

Wray and TRAC members met yesterday to review the state's 2011-2015 major projects list. The meeting resulted in a recommendation of $98 million in cuts, and wouldn't you know it, transit projects bore the brunt of the damage.

Recommendations included a 52 percent reduction for the Cincinnati Streetcar, TRAC's highest-rated project by its own non-political formula. The proposed cuts, combined with -- get this -- a rider introduced into the state budget by Ohio Governor John Kasich that would "prohibit state or federal funds" from being used on the Cincinnati Streetcar, would eliminate 100 percent of funds dedicated to the project.

Randy A. Simes from Network blog Urban Cincy reports from the meeting:

It was evident to those in attendance that the real detractors to the streetcar project were not the TRAC members who had been working together in 2010, but the newly appointed “asphalt sheriff” Jerry Wray and his staff members, Jennifer Townley and Ed Kagel. Townley, who did most of the speaking during the meeting, cited the reasons for reallocating the streetcar funding to lower ranking projects “due to fiscal balancing.”

What Townley and her colleagues failed to mention was that the TRAC funding in question is federal money being reallocated through state governments. Pulling the money for the streetcar does not help to solve the budget crisis Governor Kasich is facing, it simply moves it around to much less worthy projects. The other members of the TRAC noticed this right away and voiced their concern.

William Brennan verbally expressed concern over the state’s top-rated project shouldering the load. “The number-one-rated project is recommended to take the brunt of the cuts … that’s a problem for me,” said the Toledo native. As Brennan made the statement, several other members nodded in agreement including Antoinette Maddox, Raymond DiRossi and Patrick Darrow.

Maddox (D), the council’s only woman and African American member, spoke several times and expressed her concern for the extreme cuts made to the streetcar project. Maddox suggested other options, such as sunsetting all new projects or making cuts to the lower ranked Tier-2 projects. These were shot down by the ODOT staff members.

When pressed for more reasons behind cutting streetcar funding for Cincinnati, Townley later replied, “because there is already a bus system in place in Cincinnati that services the same area, we don’t see why rail is really necessary.”

So there you have it. Officials at the Ohio Department of Transportation have such a sophisticated understanding of transportation planning that they cannot comprehend how a rail system might complement bus transit service. Or perhaps, just maybe, something else is at work here.

Urban Cincy is encouraging readers to contact Townley with comments. A final vote on the TRAC budget will be held April 12 in Columbus.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Urban Indy compares the success of a number of Midwestern cities in using rail transit to promote urban development. Walkable Dallas Fort Worth attempts to define the word "urban." And Commute by Bike interviews the author of a new book celebrating the bike culture of New Orleans.

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