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
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
"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Bottlenecks, outdated and obsolete road configurations, plus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
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?
and Rising Demand
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
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
The cost of materials
for construction contracts saw some dramatic increases during
- Asphalt prices rose
from $94.50 per cubic yard in April to $122.50 per cubic yard
- 15-inch conduit rose
from $41.50 per linear foot in June to $50.00 per linear foot
- 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
- Redi-mix concrete
- Drainage culverts
- Reinforcing steel
- Diesel fuel up 186%
- Pre-stressed concrete
box beams for bridge decks up 95%
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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
Petrocy, BCEO Public Information Supervisor
Greg Wilkens, P.E., P.S.,
Butler County Engineer
Phone 513.867.5744 Fax 513.867.5849