Map credit: Map tiles by Stamen Design, under CC BY 3.0. Data by OpenStreetMap, under ODbL.

Portsmouth Bypass, Ohio

Status: Completed
Originally reported cost: $429 million

Update from Highway Boondoggles 5, 2019: Boondoggles put Ohio in a budget hole

Previous Highway Boondoggles reports covered two Ohio projects: the Portsmouth Bypass, a $429 million project that we noted was “in an area where driving has declined and existing roads desperately need funding for repairs,” and the Cleveland Opportunity Corridor, a $331 million project that critics noted was “unnecessary since there are several routes in the area that connect the two points already.” At the same time, as we wrote in 2015 with regards to the Portsmouth Bypass, its costs would “encumber future budgets, eating up money that could be used in the future for education, health care and other necessities.”

Despite tight funds and questionable rationales, those projects moved forward. Today, after years of reckless highway spending, Ohio is struggling to fund its transportation budget. In 2018 the Columbus Dispatch wrote that “the incoming DeWine administration will start off the new year staring down a huge transportation-budget problem: The state has run out of money for major new road-construction projects.” And a 2017 spending analysis found that Ohio’s annual spending on public transit was falling more than $650 million short of what was needed to meet market demand, noting that the “Ohio Department of Transportation itself has found the state’s public transit network fails to meet market demand by 37.5 million rides.”

In recognition of the budget hole, Ohio was able to muster the political will to raise gas and diesel taxes, which will raise an estimated $865 million in revenue per year. Yet even with the new revenue, Ohio still faces big transportation budget problems – problems that will only worsen if the Ohio Department of Transportation uses the new revenue for yet more highway expansion projects, as the agency has indicated it intends to.

As news site WCPO Cincinnati asked, “will Ohio keep widening highways when it can't afford to maintain what it has already built?” And while the state’s long underfunded transit systems will receive some money under new legislation, fuel tax revenue in Ohio can only be spent on roads and bridges. To fix its budget and achieve a better transportation future, Ohio will have to let go of wasteful and unnecessary highway projects.

Update from Highway Boondoggles 4, 2018:

The 16-mile, four-lane highway to bypass Portsmouth, Ohio, is currently being built for $429 million in an area where driving has declined and existing roads desperately need funding for repairs. The Portsmouth Bypass, now renamed the Southern Ohio Veterans Memorial Highway, will be Ohio’s first public-private partnership and one of the most expensive road projects undertaken in the state. It is projected that the bypass will be completed by December 2018.

Original story from Highway Boondoggles 2, 2016:

A major highway project that scored near the bottom of the state’s priority list is under way in a county, and a state, where driving has declined and existing roads are in desperate need of repair.

In June 2015, a private contractor for the Ohio Department of Transportation began preliminary work to build a 16-mile, four-lane highway bypassing Portsmouth, a 20,000-person city across the Ohio River from Kentucky in southern Ohio. It would roughly parallel State Route 335/489 from Sciotoville as far north as Shumway Hollow Road, and then cut northwest to Lucasville. The department claims no transportation outcomes or benefits, apart from allowing drivers to avoid several traffic lights, but nevertheless says the project would forestall feared future congestion at several intersections on U.S. 23 by building a road to draw traffic elsewhere.

The Portsmouth Bypass, recently officially renamed the Southern Ohio Veterans Memorial Highway, would be among Ohio’s most expensive road projects ever and its first ever public-private partnership for highway construction. The corporate partner is the Portsmouth Gateway Group, led by a construction firm called Dragados, the company in charge of a multi-billion-dollar tunnel-boring project that stalled under Seattle in 2013.

The construction is slated to cost $429 million, and the company expects to spend $557 million over 35 years of operating and maintaining the highway.

State funds spent over that period will total $1.2 billion. The money will primarily come from taxpayer subsidies, in the form of direct government investment, government loans, and tax-advantaged bonds. Those subsidies would encumber future budgets, eating up money that could be used in the future for education, health care and other necessities.

Building a new road is out of step with recent trends in Scioto County: Vehicle-miles traveled in the county fell an average of 0.2 percent a year from 2004 to 2014, according to state DOT data. Traffic on the roads that would be bypassed by the new highway has been stagnant for nearly a decade.

The state has serious needs competing for its scarce transportation dollars. The Portsmouth Bypass is not one of them: It scored lower than all but three other projects statewide when reviewed in both 2011 and 2012.

The state’s existing roads are also crying out for repair. In 2013, 15 percent of major Ohio roads were in poor condition, causing Ohio motorists to incur $3.3 billion – $413 each – per year in extra costs related to driving on roads in need of repair.

In March 2015, local governments across the state begged the state transportation department to invest in fixing the state’s existing roads. Yet on March 31, 2015, the Federal Highway Administration announced it would loan the state $209 million for the project through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program. And less than two weeks later, the state of Ohio signed a contract to begin building the road.