Ohio lawmakers greenlight $13.5B transportation budget with new rail safety rules

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Ohio lawmakers on Wednesday gave final approval to a two-year transportation budget that paves the way to spend billions for road and highway projects, a raft of new rail safety rules, and allowing enhanced driver’s licenses to use in lieu of a passport, among other measures.

House Bill 23, which passed a final House and Senate vote by near-unanimous margins, now heads to Gov. Mike DeWine, who can strike out parts of the bill using his line-item veto pen. The final version of the bill was hammered out by a conference committee of House and Senate members during the past few days.

The $13.5 billion budget, as passed, would provide $2.2 billion for pavement, $1.5 billion for large projects such as reconfiguring urban interstates, $717 million for bridges, and $360 million for safety upgrades. There’s about $3 billion included to improve the Brent Spence Bridge that connects Cincinnati to Northern Kentucky and help build a second bridge nearby.

“This is the largest infrastructure investment in Ohio’s history,” said House Finance Committee Chair Jay Edwards, an Athens County Republican.

Some proposals that were inserted into the budget bill as it moved through the legislature didn’t make it into the final version of the legislation – including measures to raise speed limits on many highways and to provide $1 billion for rural highways

Rail safety

The final version of the transportation bill contains new railroad safety rules proposed in the wake of last month’s East Palestine derailment, which released a large amount of toxic chemicals into the nearby air and water.

One would require all trains in Ohio to have a crew of at least two people. Another would make railroads install wayside detectors along every 10-15 miles of track. Wayside detectors use cameras and sensors to catch malfunctioning or broken equipment on passing trains before accidents happen.

Bipartisan federal legislation introduced by Ohio’s U.S. senators, Sherrod Brown and JD Vance, also would require two-person crews and wayside detectors to be installed at regular intervals.

The revised bill also would have the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio examine best practices for hotbox and hot bearing detectors, acoustic bearing detectors and cameras installed on or near railroad tracks, each of which can provide early warning of a possible train derailment. The PUCO would report its findings to the Ohio General Assembly.

However, railroad industry representatives have opposed the proposed changes, arguing that rail safety rules should be handled by the federal government, not at the state level. They’ve also said the proposed rules are being rushed through the legislature and would particularly hurt smaller railroads in the state.

Amtrak expansion

Both the House and Senate agreed on language giving Amtrak the statutory authority to expand service in Ohio.

DeWine announced last month that his administration will apply for federal money to study the feasibility of expanding Amtrak service in Ohio for the first time in decades. The grant money comes from $66 billion in additional funding for rail service passed by Congress as part of the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The acceptance, DeWine said at the time, marks the “first step” toward possibly adding new Amtrak along existing lines in Cleveland and Cincinnati, as well as potentially creating an entirely new route connecting those cities with Columbus, Dayton and other cities in between.

Competitive bidding rules

The transportation budget would change “force account” thresholds for when public projects need to be competitively bid to private-sector companies. Right now, those thresholds are set at a fixed dollar amount, but there’s been a years-long debate about changing them.

The final version of HB23 would more than double those limits and then have them increase by up to 5% every year, rather than by up to 3% every other year as existing law requires.

County engineers have pushed for the changes, saying the current competitive-bid requirements are too low, leading to projects being delayed and more expensive.

The Ohio Contractors Association had urged lawmakers to back the House’s plan to reform force account limits by setting the thresholds based on the scope of the individual project – for example, the size of a bridge or the diameter of a pipe being replaced. The Senate disagreed with that idea, though.

Enhanced driver’s licenses

The final version of the budget directs the DeWine administration to enter an agreement with the federal government to allow Ohioans to use enhanced driver’s licenses and ID cards to enter Canada, Mexico, or Caribbean countries without needing a passport.

Enhanced driver’s licenses, unlike regular licenses, contain a radio-frequency identification chip that border patrol agents can use to see the owner’s facial image, gender, date of birth and citizenship status.

Several other states, including Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington, already issue enhanced licenses.

Ohio lawmakers deliberated in 2014 over allowing the state to issue “enhanced” driver’s licenses. At the time, supporters said it would make traveling to Canada or Mexico cheaper and more convenient. However, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio worried at the time that radio chips inside the licenses could allow the government to track drivers’ locations and make Ohioans vulnerable to identity theft.

ACLU of Ohio spokeswoman Celina Coming said Wednesday that it’s not clear whether her organization still has such concerns, as it’s been years since they’ve researched the issue.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles

Right now, hybrid vehicles that run on a rechargeable battery pack as well as a gas-powered engine have to pay the same $200-per-year state registration fee charged to owners of all-electric vehicles.

HB23 would reduce the registration fee for plug-in vehicle to $150 per year, on the grounds that owners shouldn’t have to pay both the full electric vehicle fee and a state tax on gasoline. The House version of the transportation budget sought to reduce the fee to $100, while the Senate wouldn’t have made any changes to the fee at all.

Traffic-camera ban

Ohio already has a law reducing state funding to cities that have traffic-camera programs to issue tickets for speeding and running red lights. The transportation budget bill would go beyond that by prohibiting townships and counties from using fixed cameras. Rather, under the bill, they could only use handheld traffic cameras.

Right now, no counties have such traffic-camera programs, according to the County Commissioners Association of Ohio. At least one township – Liberty Township in Trumbull County – operates traffic cameras; that township generated $9.4 million in revenue from fines last year, according to WJW-TV.

Rural highway funding

The House version of the transportation budget sought to provide $1 billion for rural highways, but the Senate removed that money after finding that, under the language of the House-passed bill, only seven projects would be eligible for it.

The $1 billion would come out of a pot of money that Ohio has thanks to better-than-anticipated state tax revenue in the past. Gov. Mike DeWine, in his budget plan, proposed using the money instead to expand the state’s Medicaid emergency fund by up to $3 billion.

The legislative conference committee ended up leaving the money out of the final version of the transportation budget, though lawmakers said they intend to consider adding the measure to the main budget bill, which is currently in the early stages of moving through the legislature.

House Speaker Jason Stephens, a Lawrence County Republican, has thrown his weight behind the proposal, saying it would benefit rural counties that have to deal with traffic from nearby urban areas. But Senate President Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, previously said he has “a great deal of concern” about spending that much general revenue funding in the transportation budget, especially as lawmakers might decide to use that billion dollars to help pay for a proposed state income-tax cut or other things.

Speed limit increase

The Senate Transportation Committee briefly considered a proposal to raise speed limits on all state highways outside a city or village with a 55-mile-per-hour limit to 60 mph, as well as allow cities or townships to ask the Ohio Department of Transportation to raise the speed limit to 65 mph for state routes with a current speed limit of 60 mph.

However, that proposal was left out of the final version of the transportation budget. DeWine threatened to veto the proposed speed-limit increase, citing studies showing that it would lead to more people dying on Ohio roads.

Cincinnati railroad sale

The final version of the transportation budget would allow Cincinnati city officials to move ahead with their plan to sell the city-owned Cincinnati Southern railroad, the nation’s only municipally owned railroad, for $1.6 billion to Norfolk Southern, which currently leases the 337-mile railroad for $25 million per year.

The holdup to the sale has been that city officials want to use the $1.6 billion for capital projects. Under current state law, that money would first have to be used to pay off debt. The transportation budget would change the law to allow Cincinnati to spend the money on infrastructure, though it specifies that city officials can only seek public approval of the idea one time, during an election in either 2023 or 2024.