$54M in road projects planned for Butler County; Engineer concerned with rising costs

Work is seen being done Feb. 23, 2022 at Fine Points in Hamilton/Fairfield Twp., where a roundabout is being built. CONTRIBUTED/FAIRFIELD TWP. FACEBOOK PAGE

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Work is seen being done Feb. 23, 2022 at Fine Points in Hamilton/Fairfield Twp., where a roundabout is being built. CONTRIBUTED/FAIRFIELD TWP. FACEBOOK PAGE

County and township road improvements, Liberty Way Interchange to get chunk of funds

Butler County Engineer Greg Wilkens has $54 million worth of capital improvement projects scheduled for this year, but with gas prices soaring due to the Ukraine crisis, paving costs are “scary” right now.

Wilkens briefed the county commissioners Monday about the various intersection, bridge, paving and other projects on his plate this year. He said about $38 million is slated for new projects and about $16 million worth of work is still to come on the massive Liberty Way interchange project.

He is planning to spend $9.3 million resurfacing 43.4 miles of county and township roads. He told the commissioners he originally placed the county road price tag at around $3 million to $3.5 million but “jacked it up” to $3.9 million due to recent bids that have been received. He said that doesn’t even calculate in the crisis overseas and what that may do to pricing, since a main ingredient of asphalt is oil.

“How do you put a dollar to it, I don’t know,” Wilkens told the Journal-News. “In the last week we’ve raised our engineer’s estimates because of what we’ve heard about Fairfield’s bids coming in and other bids around us coming in, we jacked it up. Those bids were like three weeks ago, four weeks ago. We popped ours up on that reference. Ukraine is not in the equation, I don’t know how I’d put Ukraine in the equation.”

Wilkens is responsible for improving and maintaining county-owned roads but also bids and supervises resurfacing township roads. Those jurisdictions pay for the projects within their territories. Cities and the state handle their own roads.

Because of the anticipated 30% — or more — paving price hike he took two roads off the list. He said the county’s roads are in “decent shape generally speaking” but they can’t get in the habit of deferring projects.

“Some of the township roads when you prolong that what happens is that curve goes up,” Wilkens said. “They’re fine, they’re fine, they’re fine and inside a three-year period they can go from being okay, to not quite non-passable but in really bad shape.”

For years Wilkens has been begging the commissioners to give him some general fund money to step up the paving program. The commissioners indicated they may be willing to do so now.

The county is sitting in an enviable position with revenues expected to reach $116 million versus expenses of $107 million and a very healthy $119.7 million beginning bank balance this year. The commissioners also approved an $18.5 million property tax rollback which will save taxpayers about $67 per $100,000 in assessed value.

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Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said she met with Wilkens recently, and if they do invest some of the federal funds in township roads, she wants it be fairly distributed.

“How would you use that and how would you prioritize that,” Carpenter said. “Because we’ve got the same dilemma where you use it on one part of the county and it’s very expensive because we have such a density of population, versus the other side of the county.”

Wilkens said he has been considering how to create a fairness formula, but it will take a considerable amount of work so he won’t embark on that unless the commissioners commit to the money, “I don’t want to spend my time doing that and have it not happen.”

Additionally, depending on the amount, he doesn’t think he can handle adding a significant number of projects to his program this year.

All three commissioners told the Journal-News they generally support giving Wilkens extra funds for roads, but Commissioner Don Dixon was the only one to throw out a figure.

“It’s probably going to be $5 million or so,” Dixon said. “I don’t know what the other two numbers are, from the other two people (commissioners), but I’m saying at least 5 (million). We’ll talk to Greg, maybe a little bit more, if he can convince me of that.”

Wilkens has two major intersection improvements planned for this year, the largest is the Five Points intersection that straddles the border of Hamilton and Fairfield Twp., and is a crossroads where Hancock Avenue, Grand Boulevard, Tylersville Road, Hamilton-Mason Road and Tuley Road meet.

Wilkens said previously the total cost with right-of-way purchases — that totaled $835,389 — and engineering was $3.9 million, the state is covering $1.96 million and the county and Hamilton are splitting the rest. This is the first roundabout in the county with five access points. He said they hope to start construction in early spring and finish by the end of the year. Traffic will be maintained on Grand Boulevard and Hamilton-Mason “the other ones will be generally closed.”

The trickier project is at Hamilton Mason and Mauds Hughes roads that is a border between Liberty and West Chester townships. It can’t be a typical intersection improvement because of the nearby railroad overpass commonly referred to as a “mousehole.”

Wilkens said traffic signals will be two-phased, traffic going north and south can run at the same time but east and west will run one at a time “people get jammed up because of the mousehole, so it’s not going to be the most efficient intersection.”

The “mousehole” is at the center of Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds’ criminal charges because he stands accused of trying to pressure county and township officials, to use $1.1 million in TIF money to improve Hamilton Mason Road so his dad’s property can be sold for a senior living development.

Wilkens said the area at issue in Reynolds’ case is not part of this project, it is to the east of the mousehole.

The Journal-News ran a picture of the mousehole in a recent article about Reynolds’ legal trouble and Commissioner T.C. Rogers said the overpass appears to be leaning and “at what degrees does it fall down.” He noted he travels under it frequently and “I’ll admit when I drive under I drive fast.”

Wilkens said they monitor it frequently and it has been “static” so far and not in danger of toppling over yet. In order to fix it they need cooperation from the Norfolk & Southern Railroad which is extremely difficult.

The most expensive project on Wilkens’ list is the $32 million Liberty Way interchange at Interstate 75, that also includes two new roundabouts in the Veterans Boulevard extension. Construction started last year and $16 million worth of work will be completed this year.

The most expensive single new project is the $6 million Crescentville Road widening project from Ohio 747 to I-75 in West Chester Twp.

Wilkens has always been very successful at culling grants and money from partnerships with other jurisdictions, this year is no different. He collected nearly $14 million in grants, $17 million in funding from other jurisdictions and is using $7.4 million of his own money.

Rogers said he is willing to give Wilkens additional money, especially since he works so hard to get all the outside funding he can to maintain county infrastructure.

“He has been able to get grants and funding sources and he’s getting by,” Rogers said. “At the same time he seems to be in more collaboration with the townships over the last few years and able to save money that way for all.”

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