A new state transportation bill that will allow Ohioans to drive 70 mph on some highways also could move up the widening of Interstate 70 in Clark County.
Local leaders say the I-70 work is needed to improve safety and increase jobs.
The bill approved by state lawmakers this week includes a provision to allow Gov. John Kasich to borrow $1.5 billion on the Ohio turnpike. Ninety-percent of the revenue must be spent on projects within 75 miles of the toll road. The remaining money can be spent on the state’s Tier I or high priority projects.
“We have lots of projects that are unfunded because we don’t have the money to fund them. But with the infusion of $1.5 billion over multiple years, that could cause projects to be completed much sooner than we originally thought,” said Steve Faulkner, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation.
State Rep. Ross McGregor, R-Springfield, who sponsored the transportation budget, said he expects the bill to advance construction dates for many Ohio projects, including the I-70 project.
“I think this will allow Tier II projects (like I-70) to rise to the Tier I status,” McGregor said.
Proposed highway construction projects are ranked by the state’s Transportation Review Advisory Council based on safety concerns, congestion, economic development and other issues.
Chris Kershner, vice president of Public Policy and Economic Development for the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, who sits on the TRAC board, supports the I-70 project.
Kershner’s group and local leaders have formed a regional network of support to widen I-70 between Enon Road and Ohio 72 from four lanes to six lanes in both directions.
It is expected to cost $17.5 million to widen I-70 from Enon Road to U.S. 68, the first phase of the project. The second phase of the project, widening it from U.S. 68 to Ohio 72, will likely cost $42.5 million.
Ohio Department of Transportation District 7 officials have for years tried to get funding for the project.
TRAC decided last year to delay the project until 2036 because of state budget woes.
And in January, the board rejected District 7’s application seeking to move the project up to March 2013 and elevate it to a higher priority status.
Communities will likely begin accepting applications for highway projects in the next couple months. In the fall, the Ohio turnpike commission will decide on bonding projects and the TRAC board will review a list of projects.
“We’ll probably see a process that is expedited,” Faulkner said.
ODOT District 7 Deputy Director Randy Chevalley said officials will apply for funding.
“Every chance we get, we will continue to apply,” Chevalley said. “The reason we do is because you never know. Because of an economic driver, they could decide that project is needed now.”
Chevalley doesn’t think the transportation bill will move up the I-70 project, though.
“I want to be optimistic. I only will believe it when I see it,” Chevalley said, adding that when funding is available, District 7 will have design plans ready and will be prepared to award contracts for the project.
Until then, area leaders continue to pressure the state to fund the project.
Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce President Michael McDorman sent a letter to ODOT and TRAC officials last month to say the I-70 project is critical to area economic growth.
He said I-70 connects to Prime Ohio I and Prime Ohio II industrial parks and provides a regional connection to Airpark Ohio and NextEdge Applied Research and Technology Park.
“To continue to advance economic opportunity in our region, we rely on (I-70) to be safe and congestion free. Currently, this section is the only four-lane stretch of I-70 between Dayton and eastern Columbus, resulting in a 7-mile bottleneck that negatively impacts the traveling public and freight movements in the region,” McDorman wrote.
He said about 60,000 cars and trucks use that section of I-70 daily and the additional lane is needed as the traffic volume is expected to grow with economic development in the area.
“We desperately need to widen that section,” McDorman said.
McDorman said partnerships with local, regional and state officials like Kershner are key to moving the project forward.
Kershner said I-70 affects businesses beyond Clark County and plays a role in economic development in the Miami Valley region, particularly for trucking companies.
The Dayton Chamber of Commerce represents 2,900 businesses in the Miami Valley, and widening I-70 has been a top priority for the organization since Kershner joined the group in 2005.
“We would like to see it done as soon as possible. The need is there now,” Kershner said.