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Government and Politics

ODOT's plan to close budget gap stalls
Developers have shown interest in buying and managing rest areas.

Karen Kasler

The Ohio Department of Transportation has been coming up with ideas on how to plug a 1.6 billion dollar hole in its road construction budget. But as Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler reports, one of the first steps to do that has stalled.

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ODOT had hailed its plan to allow developers to turn 59 rest areas along state and U.S. routes into full-scale service plaza as a way to save money. In May, ODOT chief of staff Greg Murphy talked about that idea as part of a larger proposal to raise money through sponsorship and naming rights for interstate rest areas, bridges and other facilities and infrastructure.

“We expect to generate millions of dollars in this area,” Murphy says.

It was also hoped the money could go toward pushing forward construction projects delayed by the huge hole in ODOT’s budget. But ODOT Director Jerry Wray noted last month when five rest areas in southeast Ohio were offered up to developers, it didn’t go over well.

“Well, the first thing we did was put out a request for qualifications and we had a considerable amount of interest,” Wray says. “But then when we actually opened the request – or we tried to open the request – we didn’t get any.”

And that’s just fine with those who are opposed to the plan.

Ron Milburn is the vice president of the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers in Ohio. He speaks for owners of independent gas stations and convenience stores – many of which are along the state routes near the rest areas. 

“No consideration is being given whatsoever to the harm that will bring to them financially by putting the rest areas, upgrading the rest area facilities,” Milburn says.

Milburn says if the non-interstate rest areas are eventually turned into service plazas by developers, he wants ODOT to set up a fund to help the owners of nearby retail establishments that would lose business to them. Bob Valentine is a member of the city council in Ashland, and he worries a big developer could take business away from local business owners.  And he says drivers would pay for the convenience of stopping at a service plaza instead of a rest area.  

“When you stop at a rest area, the rest area is clean, it’s secure, you’re comfortable going in there, you don’t have to buy anything. But you start privatizing, you know you feel like you should buy something because you’re going to go in and use their restroom,” Valentine says.

Valentine is also an ODOT bridge inspector, and a member of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. And Valentine says he’s concerned that the state would never get back control over rest areas if it allows developers to privatize them, and he says the deals would bring in only one-time money. But ODOT has said it could save up to 50 million dollars a year on the costs of maintaining the rest areas if they are turned over to developers. And AAA Ohio, an organization that lobbies for drivers, supports the plan. 

“We feel that funding is scarce for our roadways around Ohio, and anything that we can do to really expand the services of highway users without increasing taxes really only makes our roads safer and easier to use for all motorists,” Kimberly Schwind of AAA Ohio says. 

ODOT Director Jerry Wray says the agency is going back to the marketplace to find out what went wrong with the proposal and will likely tinker with it – for instance, allowing companies to take just one or two rest areas instead of requiring them to take all of the ones up for development.
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