Innovators in Action: ODOT Director Jerry Wray on Addressing Ohio’s Transportation Funding Challenges Through Streamlining, Public-Private Partnerships

State departments of transportation are increasingly cutting costs and seeking new ways to finance and deliver transportation projects as revenues from traditional funding sources—primarily federal and state fuel taxes—continue to erode. In our latest interview in the Innovators in Action 2012 series, I sat down with Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) director Jerry Wray to learn how the agency is trying to address its long-term challenges by innovating today through streamlining measures, public-private partnerships (PPPs), and other strategies.

Facing an estimated $1.6 billion highway funding gap in coming years, Ohio policymakers began taking concrete steps to develop new cost-saving and project financing tools in 2011, passing legislation authorizing a potential long-term lease of the Ohio Turnpike to private investors and granting ODOT the authority to enter into PPPs to finance and develop new transportation projects.

ODOT took another major step earlier this year in establishing a new internal Division of Innovative Delivery to identify alternative transportation funding solutions. Among its early initiatives, the Division is exploring PPPs to modernize the Ohio Turnpike, develop non-Interstate rest areas, and establish a corporate sponsorship program for state-owned rest areas, bridges, interchanges and sections of highway. Further, the Division is also exploring innovative financing approaches for several different state transportation projects, including the Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River in the Cincinnati area, the Portsmouth Bypass in Scioto County.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the interview:

Gilroy: Can you describe some of the solutions you’re advancing at ODOT today?

Wray: We have to produce projects at the retail level: quick delivery of projects is what people want from us. Everything we do—from plowing snow to building new interchanges and highways—our citizens want faster and better.

To help us meet citizens’ expectations, we’ve been exploring many different ways of saving money since January 2011. For example, we’ve reduced staff by over 400 through attrition and saved over $34 million annually, a savings that will repeat year after year. We expect further staff reductions through attrition in the coming years as well, which we expect will generate further savings.

We’ve also moved to zero-based budgeting this year. ODOT used to carry forward lots of money as a cushion for future years, but we can’t afford to let that money sit on the books when we can use it to build projects around the state. We will free up millions of dollars this year alone.

We’ve also re-budgeted $150 million off of our previously adopted biennium budget, taking a hard look at areas like equipment usage, overtime control, and vehicle usage and purchasing. We believe we could reduce our vehicle fleet by up to 40 percent, for example.

That’s what we can do internally, as an agency, to identify areas where we can deliver the same great service ODOT is known for and do it at a lower cost to our customers. But we’re not stopping there. I oftentimes tell groups of people when speaking at public events that, “this isn’t your grandpa’s ODOT.” And it isn’t. We’re embarking on a new program—the Division of Innovative Delivery—that will allow us to essentially do two things: 1) reduce construction costs by partnering with the private sector, and 2) generate additional money by leveraging the value of state-owned assets.

For instance, we are conducting a top-to-bottom review of all of ODOT’s assets that could potentially generate money for the department. We have a website that provides real-time traffic information to the motoring public. Is there a market for ODOT to sell advertising space on that website? We’re about to find out. We have thousands of bridges, interchanges and other transportation features that private businesses could pay us millions of dollars to sponsor. So, we’re pursuing an aggressive sponsorship and advertising program.

We’re also looking at new and innovative ways to finance transportation projects, and we see great value in engaging the private sector through public-private partnerships.

The full interview is well worth a read and is available here.

[Note to readers: In previous years, we have published Innovators in Action in an annual report format, the last edition having been released in early 2010. The publication was on a temporary hiatus in 2011, but we have resumed publication in a slightly different format. In order to deliver timely content to our readers on a more frequent schedule, we’re publishing one Innovators article per month on Other articles featured in the Innovators in Action 2012 series are available here.]