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I-75 ahead of schedule, but future funding unclear

U.S. transportation secretary said project like the one in downtown Dayton is crucial to job creation.

The Interstate 75 project through downtown Dayton is currently under budget and ahead of schedule, but U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told Dayton-area leaders Monday that future projects are at risk because the Highway Trust Fund is nearly empty.

Foxx stopped in Dayton as part of a multi-city bus tour, urging Americans to call their senators and congressmen and ask them to commit to a four-year $302 billion transportation funding bill.

“As early as August, the fund that supports the construction of our nation’s highway system will essentially run dry,” Foxx said. “States are already cancelling projects because of the uncertainty. And although you might have an assumption that that bridge will be crossed by Congress over the next several months, if it doesn’t, you will probably feel the impacts here in Ohio.”

A spokeswoman for Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., said a new transportation bill is on the front burner.

“Congressman Boehner has made clear many times this year that a highway bill is a priority, and that he hopes both parties can work in a bipartisan way to craft a fiscally responsible bill that helps our economy and rebuilds our aging infrastructure,” press secretary Kara Hauck said.

Foxx’s visit began with good news – Ohio Department of Transportation officials told Foxx that the I-75 project is $1 million under budget and could be completed before the original September 2017 target.

ODOT District 7 Deputy Director Randy Chevalley said lead contractor Kokosing is working on ways to do highway work and exit ramp/surface street work simultaneously near the end of the project.

Chevalley said it’s quite possible that the three continuous highway lanes in each direction could be open in 2016, with only the ramps and final coat of asphalt left for 2017.

ODOT District 7 Construction Engineer Scott LeBlanc said their aggressive goal is to have the southbound lanes of I-75 finished by this September. That side of the highway is currently a patchwork of dirt and steel beams, with all traffic using the old northbound lanes. Once the southbound lanes are finished, all traffic will switch to that side, so crews can reconstruct the northbound lanes.

ODOT officials confirmed that even if a new federal highway funding bill is delayed, ongoing projects like the I-75 work would be completed, as that funding has already been secured. But future projects could be delayed or canceled.

Foxx said projects like the I-75 modernization are more than just conveniences — they’re crucial to creating jobs. ODOT Director Jerry Wray said delivery company UPS reported if they could save five minutes on each trip for a year, it would save them $100 million.

Archie Crawford, director of operations for local trucking company Jet Express, said the nightmare he expected from the I-75 work never developed. Crawford said delays would have been a big deal, given the need for just-in-time delivery of products.

“Once it’s done, it’s going to be amazing,” Crawford said. “There’s development coming in here, and this is going to enhance the ability of Dayton and the surrounding area to attract more business.”

Chris Kershner, vice president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, said a high-functioning I-75 is crucial to the area’s economy — from the ability of manufacturers to transport products out of the region, to the ability of workers to move easily to and from jobs, and the ability of service companies, from cable companies to plumbers, to get quickly to their customers.

“These construction hardships are a necessary evil to get to the strong, efficient infrastructure (of the future),” Kershner said. “And to continue to do projects like this, we need to have a highway reauthorization bill passed on the federal level. We need the administration and Congress working together.”

Foxx complimented ODOT and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley for working together on how the project interacts with downtown. Whaley and Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., had a good-natured exchange about Foxx visiting the “real birthplace” of aviation.

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