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* News Release *
 
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
For Immediate Release

COUNTY ROAD MAINTENANCE COSTS SKYROCKET
Fewer Projects on the Horizon

An economic recession, unrelenting cost increases for road and bridge maintenance, and dwindling highway funds could mean difficult commutes for motorists in coming years. Revenues for road improvements have always been hard to come by, but now more than ever local and county governments find themselves burdened with less money available from state and federal grants. Moreover, as the state shifts its focus to an aging interstate system, local state-maintained routes used by regional commuters are falling into disrepair. The task of fixing these roads has increasingly become the burden of local county engineers.

Butler County, with its booming population centers in large, unincorporated swaths -- Liberty, West Chester, Fairfield Townships -- is a prime example. In addition to caring for its own roadway system, the Butler County Engineer's Office has taken on numerous projects that technically fall under the State of Ohio's jurisdiction.

"We've done so because we recognize that for traffic to flow smoothly the entire roadway grid must be updated, not just certain portions of it," said Greg Wilkens, Butler County Engineer. "But of course this simply shifts the cost burden down to the local level."

Following a busy 2008 road construction season, the Butler County Engineer's Office finds itself at a financial crossroads. The $31 million 2008 capital improvements program marked one of the County's most aggressive plans ever, highlighting the growing need for local road improvements. Yet, increasingly difficult funding issues threaten to curb future upgrades to Butler County's road and bridge infrastructure.

"We won't be doing nearly as many projects this year," said Wilkens. "While that may seem like good news to motorists who are tired of detours, long term it could prove to make commuting even tougher. Despite the economic downturn, our local roadways continue to see increased traffic volumes that create congestion and capacity problems. Bottlenecks, outdated and obsolete road configurations, plus aging bridge structures all add up to potentially serious safety concerns."

Wilkens emphasized that the cost of operations and construction has gone up while revenues remain relatively flat. County engineer's offices in Ohio are funded through gasoline taxes and license plate fees, per the Ohio Revised Code. "The gas tax has risen very little compared to the price of fuel," Wilkens noted. "The spike in fuel prices last year caused construction costs to soar, thus gobbling up the minimal additional revenues from the gas tax. Furthermore, we are a donor county, which means that more gas tax money collected in Butler County goes out than is returned. This is designed to help less populated counties but it hurts our own efforts."

Besides flat revenues what specifically are the reasons for this funding crunch?

Aging Infrastructure and Rising Demand

Aging infrastructure means existing roads and bridges are deteriorating and in need of repair, or, are functionally obsolete and in need of upgrades. Butler County's transition to a suburban county and resulting population boom has placed a huge demand on the infrastructure. Yesterday's two-lane roads no longer suffice. Many roads have been widened to four, five, and six lanes with turn lanes and wider paved berms. This all adds up to increased maintenance costs -- more asphalt required to resurface, more pavement repairs, more salt and plowing required in the winter. Additional trucks have had to be added to the BCEO snow and ice control fleet to accommodate the additional pavement that needs to be cleared.

As a point of comparison, the Engineer's Office is responsible for maintaining 275 centerline miles of roadway. But add in all the extra lanes and turn lanes and that number balloons to 608 actual lane miles. Every time a road is widened or turn lanes are added, the centerline miles remain the same but lane mileage that requires real maintenance increases.

Higher fuel prices have driven up the cost of materials needed to keep these roads and bridges safe. "We are spending dramatically more on concrete for bridge decks and piers, more on asphalt for paving, salt and calcium chloride, plus gasoline and diesel fuel itself," Wilkens pointed out. "Even the emulsion used for patching cracks and preparing sub-surfaces for paving is fuel based and more expensive. But we also have vehicle and equipment costs and administrative costs. And like everyone else, we're paying higher prices to maintain our facilities -- more for gas and electric."

Some Examples

The cost of materials for construction contracts saw some dramatic increases during 2008:

  • Asphalt prices rose from $94.50 per cubic yard in April to $122.50 per cubic yard by August
  • 15-inch conduit rose from $41.50 per linear foot in June to $50.00 per linear foot in September
  • Concrete curb went from $16.20 per linear foot in June to $20.25 in September
  • The BCEO awarded its salt contract in June at $51.42 per ton, but by fall many agencies were paying over $170 for a ton of salt.

The BCEO also performs many non-contract projects with its own labor force. These are known as Force Account projects and have certain limits imposed by the State. For example, current limits for counties to legally utilize existing forces are $100,000 per bridge or culvert replacement and $30,000 per mile for paving or maintenance.

Yet, no inflationary factors are built into this legislation. Since these limits were set by the Ohio General Assembly in 2003, the following cost increases have occurred:

  • Hotmix asphalt up 107%
  • Redi-mix concrete up 27%
  • Drainage culverts up 57%
  • Reinforcing steel up 159%
  • Diesel fuel up 186%
  • Pre-stressed concrete box beams for bridge decks up 95%

These considerable increases have had a diminishing effect on the amount of Force Account work the County can perform. Without adjustments by the legislature, this work will become increasingly more restricted.

Changing Legislation

Wilkens has been at the forefront of a statewide effort by county engineers to not only adjust Force Account limits, but to significantly alter the way federal funds are distributed. He is working with legislators to shift a greater percentage of federal money to the Ohio Public Works Commission (OPWC) which can distribute funds down to the local level more quickly, thus avoiding lengthy, bureaucratic federal processes.

This would allow local county engineers to put more money directly into road and bridge projects because less would have to be spent on costly and time-consuming studies mandated by the federal government. It would also provide the added benefit of stimulating Ohio's economy more quickly since local infrastructure improvements will create jobs.

"Ultimately, we have to make more funding available to local governments in order to maintain and upgrade our infrastructure," Wilkens emphasized. "That's why I am working closely with our representatives and congressmen, as well as with the governor's office, to put a more efficient plan in place and streamline the entire process."

More Efficiency and Resource Sharing

In the meantime, what is the BCEO doing to cope with increased fuel and materials costs, shouldering the burden of state highway projects, and working within outmoded Force Account limits? "The Engineer's Office has been operating very efficiently for years," said Wilkens. "That was one of my top priorities when I took office in 2001. But we're finding even more creative ways to do business. For example, this past year we built two roundabouts -- Butler County's first on major roads. In certain applications, these are a safer alternative to traditional, signalized intersections and we also save on the long-term cost of signal maintenance. Moreover, in the 57 signals that we do operate, we're replacing the lamps with LEDs which use less energy and provide much lower maintenance costs."

Wilkens also noted that the BCEO has streamlined vehicle travel and snow routes, replaced antiquated equipment with new energy-efficient equipment, is bidding for road salt early to get a better price, and is sharing resources with the cities and townships. "We need to think smarter about our resources, taking a more regional approach to equipment purchasing and sharing," he said. "Every possibility must be considered regardless of political boundaries in an effort to be more efficient. We are here to serve all taxpayers regardless of jurisdictional lines. The Butler County Engineer's Office will continue to maximize use of all resources and explore new and better ways to improve the County's roads and bridges."

# # #

For more information contact:

Chris Petrocy, BCEO Public Information Supervisor
Greg Wilkens, P.E., P.S., Butler County Engineer
Phone 513.867.5744 • Fax 513.867.5849


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