The North Hamilton Crossing project is an inevitability, but one of the big questions ― and there are several big questions ― is when it could be constructed.
It’s not only a hard question to answer, but it’s also a frustrating one, especially for the residents of the North End as their big question is where will the route travel? The answers to both of these questions are interrelated.
It could be years before the first phase of many begins, and that all depends on funding and which property is needed and acquired.
The project already has $2 million in funding from the Ohio Transportation Review Advisory Council. Nearly all of that money ($1.9 million) is from the Federal Surface Transportation Block Grant and the remaining is from the Ohio Department of Transportation ($100,000). But this money has to be spent this year and next, said Allen Messer, Hamilton assistant director of Engineering.
The city has applied for more funding, including the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE), Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI), and Rail Crossing Elimination (RCE) grants. For the South Hamilton Crossing project, the city received six grants that totaled around $18 million of the $30 million project. Messer said he anticipates a similar approach for North Hamilton Crossing.
The approach also involved the taking of property. Some of that could be city-owned. No muss, no fuss.
However, most of the land is likely to be owned by property owners, which comes with muss and fuss. Potentially a lot of both.
North Hamilton Crossing has been discussed within the city for decades — well before Spooky Nook at Champion Mill was even a thought on North B Street (before the original was built in Lancaster, Pennsylvania). But the talk on the need for this east-west corridor has ramped up over the past couple of years. So while the mega-complex that attracts sporting events, conventions and conferences, and hotel guests will benefit from a future North Hamilton Crossing, Messer said, “It’s not the main driver.”
What is the North Hamilton Crossing, and why is there a need?
North Hamilton Crossing will be a new street transportation corridor that will help east-west traffic move across the city, that includes a new grade-separated railroad crossing over the Great Miami River. Right now, the only river crossing north of downtown is the 1922-built Black Street Bridge, a narrow two-lane bridge.
This is a need, city officials have said, because tens of thousands of vehicles travel along one of the main east-west routes in Hamilton. And while the North Hamilton Crossing has been a project talked about for at least two decades, it’s become more of a need now than ever before.
During a traffic study in 2019, the city had more than 74,000 vehicles traveling east-west through the city along one of those main east-west corridors. However, at-grade train crossings significantly add to congestion and delay along these routes. A December 2020 analysis found trains block the closest at-grade crossings to the North Hamilton Crossing project approximately 20% of the day. That’s significant congestion.
Hamilton’s only existing east-west route with no at-grade train crossing is along Ohio 129 and over the High-Main Bridge. However, congestion on this route in less than a decade will be filled with gridlock in the afternoons because of the Black Street Bridge to the north. By 2030, Black Street is expected to exceed its two-lane PM peak hour capacity, which means more cars will try to cross the Great Miami River at the High-Main Bridge. If that happens, the level of service rating for the majority of that route is expected to be an F, which means there’s severe congestion.
The goal is to give motorists another east-west corridor north of downtown to cross the city unobstructed by a train. The Black Street Bridge had been another way to cross the Great Miami River, but with it being more than 100 years old, it is exceeding its useful life, though it has many more years of service life to offer. The plan is to regulate Black Street’s usage, such as making it a light transit river crossing.
“I think our primary focus should be on community development ― making sure that there are crosswalk improvements, safe connections to businesses and parks, new trees and landscaping, and try our best to incorporate the feedback we hear from residents into the design."
- Hamilton Planning Director Liz Hayden
Though the name may make one believe it, the North Hamilton Crossing project is not a highway project, city officials said. Hamilton Planning Director Liz Hayden said this roadway project would go through the city’s neighborhoods with a boulevard design. It would be part of the city’s street network, connecting many cross streets.
“I think our primary focus should be on community development ― making sure that there are crosswalk improvements, safe connections to businesses and parks, new trees and landscaping, and try our best to incorporate the feedback we hear from residents into the design,” she said.
That means, Hayden said, ensuring crosswalk improvements, safe connections to businesses and parks, new trees and landscaping, and trying to incorporate feedback from residents.
Welcome to the North End
The city’s North End may be rough around the edges to some, but the community’s denizens wouldn’t want to live any other place. Generations of families have called it home and consider it a special place in the city. But the community is, in a way, walled off from the rest of the city, as many of those same residents also admit they tend to stay in their community and keep to themselves.
Residents have rallied, especially in recent months because of the North Hamilton Crossing project, to strengthen the ties that define the community. But some fear this road project will weaken the neighborhood.
Hamilton’s North End was once known for its industry, most famously Henry Ford’s Fordson Tractor Plant, which sat near the Great Miami River and was likely his first tractor plant to be powered by water. It’s also known for its residents’ German and Appalachian heritage.
The North End’s most famous former resident was the Ol’ Lefthander Joe Nuxhall, who played on the much-beloved ballfields at L.J. Smith Park. The road along the park through the neighborhood, Joe Nuxhall Boulevard, is named for the late Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame pitcher and broadcaster.
Today, there are about 1,300 households with just more than 3,800 residents in the 1.31-square-mile traditional neighborhood, north of the urban neighborhoods of Dayton Lane and German Village, and east of Prospect Hill, a traditional neighborhood now home to Spooky Nook Sports at Champion Mill.
They also have a neighborhood group called RENEW (Renewing the North End from Within), and Hamilton Police Sgt. Brian Ungerbuehler said either he or another police officer will attend the meeting, as well as other meetings with other neighborhood groups, which “is a great resource” to learn about the area.
Alicia Bowman, who is involved with RENEW, moved with her family into the neighborhood four years ago, overlooking its rough exterior.
“Everyone’s always looking out for one another and helping out where they can,” she said. “Everyone turns to look after their own, and it is a very compassionate neighborhood with a lot of pride.”
The North End Market serves as the neighborhood’s defacto community center, where kids with cash gripped in their hands either ride their bikes or run to the store for a snack and a drink. Neighbors connect, catching up or talking about the news of the day. Lately, it’s the major road project that has many upset, not that it’s not needed, but because of the uncertainty and the possible routes that could go through the heart of the community.
Though the city has the empirical data to support why this project is necessary, it’s still not a popular decision among many residents in the North End, which is the majority of the study area.
There are 16 possible routes the city presented in January at an open house, but city officials say the ultimate route could be a combination of two or more of those routes.
Bowman said while the city said the crossing would improve safety, she and other residents aren’t so sure. With more traffic coming through, it may improve vehicle safety, but, she asked whether it will it improve safety for their children.
“We have a high amount of foot traffic,” she said. “A lot of our residents walk to where they need to go, and increased traffic flows will cause issues — not to mention displacing families. We are also concerned about safety as far as the proximity to the park, especially with children that take themselves to the park.”
Bowman said a majority of those who live in the North End aren’t necessarily opposed to the idea of a crossing, but just some of the projected routes, such as possibly through L.J. Smith Park ― one of the many places where the late Joe Nuxhall, the Reds Hall of Fame pitcher and broadcaster, played baseball ― and the adjacent former Chem-Dyne Superfund site. But while the city haven’t named any preferred routes, those two areas appear to be safe, according to City Manager Joshua Smith.
“The city listened carefully to the residents of the North End during the various stakeholders’ meetings,” he said. “We clearly understand the desire to leave the North End ballfields in their current layout and not to disturb the Chem-Dyne Superfund site. We have provided an alternative route to the Ohio Department of Transportation for consideration that would diminish much of the impact on the North End neighborhood. While all routes continue to be evaluated, we are hopeful the proposed route will gain favor.”
But it’s beyond a safety issue for some in the North End. It’s about their homes. Exactly how many properties would be needed to make the crossing possible is unknown since routes have not been identified. It’s likely to be more than what Hamilton needed to finish the South Hamilton Crossing project at Grand Boulevard. That 2018 project, which was 100 years in the making, required 29 residential structures to eliminate the at-grade crossing at Grand Boulevard and U.S. 127.
City officials say which properties affected won’t be known until the preliminary engineering phase is completed early next year, and a preferred alternative is identified. There are federal and state guidelines protect the interests of resident and owners and there will be assistance provided to locate replacement housing.
“We clearly understand the desire to leave the North End ballfields in their current layout and not to disturb the Chem-Dyne Superfund site. We have provided an alternative route to the Ohio Department of Transportation for consideration that would diminish much of the impact on the North End neighborhood. While all routes continue to be evaluated, we are hopeful the proposed route will gain favor."
- City Manager Joshua Smith
Relocation costs were paid for by the project, which received money from a combination of Hamilton and the Butler County TID, as well as railroad, state and federal funding sources. In addition to relocation costs, new homes could be constructed if North End residents wished to stay in the community and a comparable home is not found, city officials said.
But Tosha Sanders, of Reservoir Street, said that doesn’t mean those families will have added income.
“Everyone’s already struggling, working every day to even put food on the table because of the prices of everything,” she said. “You can’t even financially breathe. I would hate to see anyone not be able to afford (to live in the neighborhood). A lot of people are on disability or retirement. Money doesn’t go very far.”
Then there are the North End residents who struggle together, Sanders said.
“There are people here that are sharing homes here just to be able to survive here,” she said.
Nikki Muntz, who lives with her husband at the corner of North Ninth and Vine streets, said she’s likely in the minority when it comes to the project. She rents her house from her brother-in-law and admitted she “was devastated” when she first heard of the project plans last fall.
“I was crushed ... we’ve been here so long, it’s kind of rent-controlled,” she said, who rents the home from her brother-in-law. “But then me and my husband were talking about it; we’re empty nesters, we thought about moving to a smaller house because it’s just us.”
The city needs the North Hamilton Crossing, she said, and it “is for the greater of the city.”
“Have you ever tried to leave here and get to Meijer (4 miles away) at 5 o’clock?” Muntz asked. “It’s faster to go to Middletown than to try to get across town. You can get to Middletown or Trenton in 20 or 25 minutes, but at 5 o’clock, you can get to Meijer in under a half-hour.”
She said the Crossing was needed before Spooky Nook opened, “but now, with Spooky Nook, it needs it a whole lot more.”
But others just don’t want to see it happen.
Derek Lawrence, of Greenwood Avenue, has no desire to see any part of the North Hamilton Crossing, especially if any of the few amenities in the North End are sacrificed.
“If you put in a new roadway, and two cars pass each other, what’s gained and what’s lost? But if you keep the ballfields, you got a sense of community that goes along with the birthday parties and the grill outs. You get a foundation of friends, family and fun,” he said.
Where could it go?
The North Hamilton Crossing project aims to efficiently move east-west traffic in the northern part of the city in an effort to reduce congestion. There are 16 possible routes on how traffic will travel in the northern part of the city, and city officials have said the top two to three preferred routes will be announced by mid-June.
Messer is hesitant on saying how many of the 16 are realistically being considered as city officials and consultants are still evaluating, but he did say, “The ones that are to the west of the (Greenwood) Cemetery meet the project needs greater than those that swing to the east.” and conceded that “it’s very possible that we advance a combination of one of those routes.”
“We’ve said all along anything within the study area was open for discussion, and we had a number of people that said, ‘What if you tweak this route this way, or that route a different way’ as part of that public input. That’s what we’re evaluating now, and see if there’s a best of all the alternatives.”
The city is expected to announce two to three preferred routes by mid-June. A pair of June meetings on the North Hamilton Crossing have been rescheduled due to an Ohio Department of Transportation request.
The early June stakeholders meeting will now take place on July 26, and the late June public meeting will now be on Aug. 28. Both events will be at Parrish Auditorium on the Miami University Regionals Hamilton campus.
Though preferred routes will be announced soon, Messer said, “the decision has not been made” as to which specific routes are will be further explored.
“A year from now, we’ll have a preferred alternative, and we’ll move forward with designing that in detail, but there’s always an opportunity for input before the shovel hits the ground,” he said.
More than 300 people attended the in-person meeting on Jan. 23, and the virtual open house website was visited 9,100 times from Jan. 23 to March 12 with nearly 900 participants. Additionally, there were dozens of collective emails and phone calls on the project.
Messer said when these options are presented to the public, it will include a Q&A session, which will be more along the format people were expecting the January open house to be.
North Hamilton Crossing will be done piece by piece over several years. The first piece ― which city officials say is needed regardless of the project ― includes two intersection improvements north of the Spooky Nook development. City Council voted to back a Butler County Transportation Improvement District application to the Ohio Kentucky Indiana (OKI) Regional Council of Governments for the construction of back-to-back roundabouts at the Northwest Washington Boulevard and West Elkton Road intersection and the West Elkton and North B Street intersection.
The OKI grant would pay $5.9 million and the city would be responsible for the remaining $1.57 million, and Messer said this project’s price tag could be considered part of any required local match for the North Hamilton Crossing project. Between 11,000 and 15,000 cars go through this area, and this traffic will only increase as Spooky Nook grows in use and popularity.
Traffic and safety
The need for the North Hamilton Crossing can be summed up in two words: traffic and safety.
It may be simplistic given its potential price tag could be upward of $80 million to $120 million, which includes construction and potentially acquiring dozens of properties in the North End. However, the roadway will address much of the city’s current and future traffic problems and safety concerns within the North End.
The safety reasons are supported by nearly five years of crash data ― from Jan. 1, 2016, to Oct. 31, 2020 ― as 22 intersections have been evaluated within the study area. This includes identifying primary, secondary, and tertiary crash patterns at each intersection.
Crashes ranged from a low of 12 at U.S. 127 and Maple Avenue to a high of 182 at Ohio 29 and Ohio 4. The majority of the crashes were rear-ended wrecks.
There were also four fatalities in the study area over that timeframe. Two were at Ohio 129 and Fair Avenue, and one each at Ohio 129 and Hampshire Drive and U.S. 127 and Heaton Street.
Additionally, four intersections along Ohio 129 were within the study area listed on the Ohio Department of Transportation’s list of Highway Safety Improvement Program’s 500 priority urban intersections.
Ohio 127 and North 7th Street ranks 24th, Ohio 129 and Ohio 4 (Erie Boulevard) ranks 31, Ohio 129 and U.S. 127 (MLK Jr. Boulevard) ranks 40th, and Ohio 129 and North B Street ranks 57th.
The traffic reasons for the project show a lot of the vehicles are already going along the northern parts of Hamilton, and models and projections forecast it to be worse within the next 30 years.
“The project is in the feasibility study stage, and each route was evaluated from a high level using a simulation model to determine their effectiveness of pulling traffic from other roads in Hamilton onto them,” said Messer.
A simulation was conducted for the existing traffic plus planned development traffic within the study area. Daily traffic volumes along the various routes ranged from a low of 9,000 to a high of 23,000 vehicles per day.
“As part of the next phase of work, when the two or three preferred alternatives are selected, detailed analysis of the traffic operations along each route will be performed,” Messer said. “This includes the development of opening and design year traffic volumes.”
As it stands today, along Ohio 129, the traffic ranges from 30,000 to 43,000 per day.
There are other reasons, too, according to the city, including addressing at-grade train crossings, bike and pedestrian safety, east-west connectivity, and alternative modes of transportation.
It will also open the city to more economic development, growth, and redevelopment.
Hamilton Economic Development Director Jody Gunderson said the city’s Area Development’s Annual Consultants Survey showed that highway access, available land, and shovel-ready sites are among the top key criteria used by consultants recommending preferred development sites.
Just as the Veterans Highway that connected Hamilton to Interstate 75 opened up development to several communities, and the Cox Extention helped open up hundreds of acres of developable land in Liberty Twp., a North Hamilton Crossing could have similar impacts.
Hamilton has seen that with improved roadway access in other areas of the city.
“The success that Hamilton has experienced in attracting and expanding business to Enterprise Park can in part be attributed to sites that are shovel-ready adjacent to a well-developed transportation network,” Gunderson said.
Hayden said when the city went through the process to develop Plan Hamilton ― a 2019-approved comprehensive plan to help guide the city for the next 15 years ―“we heard from a lot of stakeholders that they have considered moving or chose not to live in Hamilton because getting through Hamilton every day to get to work was too time-consuming.”
She said this North Hamilton Crossing project would make it easier for people to choose Hamilton to live in as it “will make our neighborhoods more attractive to live in and could encourage the development of new neighborhoods.”
Hamilton Assistant to the City Manager Mallory Greenham, who also works on small business development, said the North End’s Heaton Avenue is a historically significant commercial district in the neighborhood. And no matter where the road goes, Heaton Avenue “is well-suited for redevelopment,” she said.
“In anticipation of this growth, the DORA (designated outdoor refreshment area) and CED (community entertainment district) have been expanded up the street to help spur activity,” she said. “The area already has strong community-minded businesses in the area like the North End Market, Front Room on 7th Avenue, and the soon-to-be-opened Stone Tavern on the corner of Heaton and Greenwood. Additionally, there is a commercial structure on the corner of Heaton and 7th that is seeking tenants to occupy its first floor and help activate the district.
The city is also working with the developer of the former Beckett Paper building. City Manager Joshua Smith said his staff is working on a City Council presentation for June, which would provide more public detail to their overall site plan.
The project, though, is being slowed as the city has requested they delay their application for historic state tax credits so as to not compete with other Hamilton projects seeking the credits this summer and fall.
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The Journal-News has followed the plan for the development of the North Hamilton Crossing since it was first announced. Want to comment? Email email@example.com. Follow the progress of the NHX plans at journal-news.com.