Part of Liberty Way interchange overhaul is open but entire project delayed

The Butler County Engineer’s Office has announced that Veterans Boulevard in Liberty Twp. is now open as part of the massive $32 million Liberty Way reconfiguration, but construction on the rest will continue into next year.

Veterans Boulevard is open and connected to the Cox Road roundabout on the east side. Betsy Horton, Wilkens’ spokeswoman, said the west leg will be partially open this weekend — weather permitting — and in a few weeks will be fully operational.

The $6.6 million project extended Veterans Boulevard, providing another access point off Ohio 129 to Liberty Way and serves the new the Freedom Pointe development including the new Costco which is scheduled to open Wednesday.

ExploreExclusive: Costco official talks about new, larger store in Liberty Twp.

County Engineer Greg Wilkens told the Journal-News previously that Veterans Boulevard ties into the new roundabout at Cox Road, as part of the $32.5 million “fix” to the tricky Liberty Way interchange at Ohio 129 and Interstate 75. The new road will provide motorists wanting to travel east to Mason a smooth route to Liberty Way, and those who want to head south can just stay on Cox Road.

“You’re separating that traffic and that’s the advantage of having this additional road through there,” Wilkens said. “Otherwise they would both come onto Cox and Liberty Way and inundate that intersection which is already busy.”

The entire Liberty Way interchange project was supposed to be completed this month but Horton said construction will now stretch into next year. Construction projects all over have been crippled by pandemic-induced labor shortages and supply chain issues. She said Liberty Way is no different.

“The complexities of this two-year project, combined with a shortage in the workforce, have made it challenging to meet the completion date,” Horton said. “While the core of the project will soon be fully functional to accommodate Liberty Way, Costco, and hospital traffic, another construction phase is essential to get us to completion.”

It rankles officials here that a change is even necessary, since the interchange is only a dozen years old — the $40 million interchange which was paid 100% with local funds — opened in October 2009. When the interchange was first imagined the design being built now was preferred by locals, but rejected by the state because it terminates into a local road.

Wilkens said it became evident shortly after the mega $350 million multi-use Liberty Center development opened and traffic picked up in 2016 that the design was flawed.

Liberty Twp. Trustee Steve Schramm said it is great Veterans Boulevard opened and the full completion delay is understandable, “they’re not going to open it until they have every single thing done.”

“I’m happy that we’ve met that one milestone because that allows access to everything in there that we need for the businesses,” Schramm said. “I’m a little disappointed we didn’t have the entire thing done in time, but I think it’s still going to play out just fine.”

Liberty Twp. Trustee Tom Farrell said “I think it was appropriate to open it on Veterans Day” and it is hard to believe how that area has been transformed in such a short period of time. He said it was farmland and then Costco “for many of us it felt like it just fell from the sky,” and it was made possible because of the critical infrastructure.

“Infrastructure is the key to the long-term success and sustainability of any township,” Farrell said. “The combination of the fixing of (Ohio) 129 and the infrastructure that will allow larger volume to move through that area as well as the Millikin Road interchange, both of those combined are the foundation for Liberty’s future.”

The proposed Millikin Road interchange project has been a high priority for Liberty for years. Financial analyst Andy Brossart has conservatively estimated the interchange project, when fully phased out, is going to be worth $388 million in new investment. There are about 700 undeveloped acres slated for commercial development in the Millikin Road area, and the intersection and Cox Road extension to Ohio 63 would open better access to 1,200 acres — which would hold the equivalent of 12 Liberty Centers.

The latest cost estimate is $30 million to build the diverging diamond interchange — like the new overpass at Union Centre Boulevard further south — at Interstate 75 and possibly $10 million to acquire right-of-way.

The township trustees and Butler County commissioners met in executive session recently to discuss a potential partnership in the project. The trustees are hoping the commissioners will be one of their funding sources for the interchange. The two governments collaborated to make Liberty Center a reality a decade ago after the Liberty Way interchange opened.

Commissioner Don Dixon said his board supports the project as long as the taxpayers won’t be burdened.

“It all comes down to the bottom line and the real number and the fact of the matter is we have to be sure our taxpayers aren’t subsidizing a development for the developers,” Dixon said. “It’s easy to say just go ahead and built it, but now let’s talk about who is really going to pay for it at the end of the day. This commission has said we don’t mind helping but helping doesn’t mean giving it to them, the developers, and not getting the money back.”

Commissioner T.C. Rogers said the Ohio Department of Transportation has given its blessing to the new interchange which is “rare” so he supports it and wants to participate. Plus the potential to increase sales tax — the county’s largest revenue source — and other revenue makes the venture attractive.

“If you look at Butler County as a whole there’s probably only two or three areas which could substantially increase the total value of the county and that’s one of them,” Rogers said.

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