Stop Grumbling: Infrastructure Work Is Vital

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Motorists may fume and grumble at traffic detours and delays along the thoroughfares in the region. Those bright orange cones and heavy machinery, however, mean big investments, jobs and improvements that stand to have a lasting effect in the community.

It’s all part of the necessary and expensive upkeep of infrastructure – public services that provide the lifeblood to commerce.

Should a windfall of federal dollars fall into the lap of the Mahoning Valley, what rebuilding projects are on public officials’ wish list for completion?

“I wouldn’t call it a wish list,” says Mahoning County Engineer Pat Ginnetti. “I call it a needs list. All the projects we do are necessary.”

First among those needs is a comprehensive repaving effort on county and township roads, Ginnetti says.  “When I assumed this job 8½ years ago, two-thirds of our roads were rated a D or an F,” he says. 

A major part of the challenge is paying for the county’s priorities with limited resources.

While much of this roadwork is funded through grants from the Ohio Department of Transportation and other sources, it’s up to Mahoning County to come up with matching funds to secure this money, Ginnetti says. The grants are competitive, which often pits the county against other communities in Ohio similar in size and with the same challenges.

“It’s difficult,” he says. “There’s no guarantee.”

What is especially challenging is that the county engineer’s budget has remained fairly stagnant over the past two decades, Ginnetti says. In 20 years, the budget has increased by about $600,000, he says.  

In Ohio, county engineer departments are primarily funded by two sources: a gasoline tax and license plate fees. “We receive no property taxes,” Ginnetti says.

While all 88 counties divvy up 11% of the state’s fuel tax, the amount the state awards engineering departments depends on the number of license plate transactions within the county.  Therefore, those counties with more drivers receive more revenue. Some additional funding is procured from traffic fines through county courts. 

For Mahoning County, that means stretching to find matching funds to secure federal and state grants that are vital to millions of dollars in projects.

While it remains unknown whether the U.S. Senate and President Biden can reach a compromise on an infrastructure spending bill, should the county secure a sizeable amount of federal dollars, Ginnetti says he would “pave as many roads as possible.”

Reconstruction work on Meridian Road, for example, is needed over the next decade, he says, while the industrial corridor in Jackson Township will also require resurfacing.

Second, Ginnetti says he would devote more resources to bridge repairs, noting that major reconstructions to several spans years ago will likely need to be revisited in the near term.  

Currently, the county is engaged in several projects including road widening along South Avenue in Boardman, a $5 million project along five miles of Mahoning Avenue in Austintown, and bridge repair on Raccoon Road.

“We usually work with between five and 10 contractors every year,” Ginnetti says.

A comprehensive infrastructure package, he says, could boost job opportunities for civil engineering firms and the trades. “It would help stimulate the economy from a construction side,” he says. “For us, we work with the Teamsters, Operating Engineers, Painters, Electrical and Carpenters unions – especially on the bridges.”

A study prepared in 2020 by the American Society of Civil Engineers shows that the United States will require an investment in excess of $2 trillion between 2016 and 2025 to adequately address infrastructure shortfalls. According to the report, more than 850 water mains break every day, while 44% of the nation’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition while 38% of U.S. bridges are in need of “repair, replacement or significant rehabilitation.”

The report estimated that poor road conditions cost U.S. drivers nearly $129 billion per year related to repairs and operating costs. And it found correlations between infrastructure investment and economic growth, such as development of the Interstate Highway System during the 1950s.  

Since the Great Depression, the United States has gradually reduced infrastructure investments. In 1930, 4.2% of the U.S. gross domestic product was allocated to infrastructure projects, a level of investment that had dwindled to 2.5% by 2016, the report found. Between 2003 and 2017, public spending on roads, bridges, water systems and other infrastructure fell by 8%.

In the city of Girard, “The biggest thing we face in the city is replacing our aging water lines,” says Mayor James Melfi.  

Girard recently completed a $22 million upgrade of its wastewater treatment plant to achieve compliance with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Still, some of the water lines that run throughout the city were installed during the New Deal and are in desperate need of replacement.

“As far as infrastructure goes, water is our No. 1 priority,” Melfi says.

Critical attention needs to be devoted to the redevelopment of aging water and wastewater systems across Mahoning and Trumbull counties, says Jim Kinnick, executive director of Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, which oversees major infrastructure projects in the region.

Eastgate plans to bring on a consultant who can gather and evaluate existing data on the condition of water and wastewater infrastructure across both counties. “We would do an inventory of the structures we have, their age and condition and make recommendations about how to go forward,” Kinnick says.

Equally important among infrastructure projects is the expansion of broadband access, he adds.

Eastgate has put together a plan that includes extending broadband to underserved areas of Mahoning, Trumbull and Ashtabula counties. Reinforcing broadband infrastructure is one aspect of President Biden’s infrastructure proposal.

“When money does become available, we’re standing with a plan in our hand about what we’re going to do with the money,” Kinnick says.

The Eastgate plan calls for improving broadband service in urban and rural areas, Kinnick says.  Short-term goals could begin being implemented in the fall. A second phase could begin next spring. 

“The infrastructure plan we’re hearing about now nationally will make a huge difference,” he says. “We’ll also look to attract some money at the state level.”

A strong broadband network is crucial to improving the economic well-being of the region, Kinnick says.

“It’s important that when we talk about the infrastructure bill, we focus on more than just roads and bridges,” he says. “We need to talk about water, wastewater and broadband.”

Pictured: The $31 million Smart2 Network project is rebuilding the Fifth Avenue corridor near Youngstown State University, downtown and Mercy Health.