Ohio Governor Pushes Congress To Increase Highway Spending

By MALIA RULON, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Ohio Gov. Bob Taft said Wednesday it's critical that Congress restore the $234 million for highway construction that the state would lose next year under President Bush's proposed budget.

"Such a cut would force us to delay much needed new construction and would further dampen our economy," Taft said.

Taft, who is in Washington this week for a National Governors Association meeting, took his case Wednesday to 13 members of Ohio's congressional delegation.

He said the governors are urging Congress and President Bush to approve additional highway funds for states this year in order to avoid disrupting existing construction plans, budgets and contracts.

In Ohio, 17 major projects could be affected by highway funding cuts, said Brian Cunningham, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

Most would expand existing state routes and interstates, such as a $42 million project to improve the interchange of Interstates 70 and 75 north of Dayton and a $39 million job to widen state Route 8, which runs from Akron to Cleveland.

Bush's budget plan for 2003, which starts Oct. 1, provides $22.6 billion for the Federal Highway Administration, down sharply from $32.1 billion this year. States would receive $8.5 billion less next year than this year.

Legislation from the House and Senate transportation committees that would restore about half of the cuts, or $4.4 billion, has attracted broad support in Congress, largely because it would benefit every state and there is an $18 billion surplus in the federal highway trust fund.

"That would be a huge improvement for the state, but we still have some projects that will suffer even under that outcome," Taft said.

Ohio received $960 million for highway projects this year. The state would get 24 percent less, or $726 million, under Bush's proposed budget. It would get about $867 million under the proposed restoration bill.

Ohio's transportation department has an annual budget of $2.35 billion, Cunningham said.

"We certainly would like it if we could go back to the level of funding in the prior years, but we recognize that there is a budget deficit and Congress has challenges," Taft said.

It is estimated that $1 billion spent on highways creates 40,000 jobs.

The funding cuts were proposed because the highway fund made up of taxes on gas and tires shrunk last year because of the economic downturn. A formula determines how this money is distributed to each state.

Taft is urging the delegation to change that formula to increase Ohio's share of highway funding when the federal transportation law expires in 2003. Currently, Ohio receives about 88 cents for each dollar it collects, which the state transportation department says translates into a $140 million annual loss.

The governor also said the state needs relief for its unemployed workers and remedies for the steel industry. The Bush administration has until Wednesday to decide whether to impose tariffs of up to 40 percent on certain steel products.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)