Athens County Transportation Group Has First Meeting

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The impetus for forming the Athens County Transportation Improvement District was to seek funding for projects, but it could eventually play a larger role.

Earlier this month, the county commissioners formed the district and appointed a five-member board at the request of County Engineer Jeff Maiden, who wanted to seek funding from the Ohio Department of Transportation for road projects. ODOT has $3.5 million for transportation improvement district projects statewide for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Board members include Maiden, County Commission President Lenny Eliason, Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl, Nelsonville City Manager Mark Hall and Athens County Township Trustees Association President Ted Linscott.

The board met for the first time Thursday, adopted bylaws, appointed officers and approved two projects suggested by Maiden as the first for which the district will seek funding. The projects include:

• Repairs to Athens County Road 7 (Johnson Road), for which $50,000 is being sought. The total estimated project cost is $100,000.

• Resurfacing and culvert replacement on Athens County Road 53 (Lottridge-Bethany Ridge), for which $250,000 is being sought. The county already has $400,000 in Issue I funding for the project, Maiden said.

Wiehl said he was unfamiliar with transportation improvement districts, and the state law governing them, prior to being appointed to the board.

"I'm kind of stunned at the powers this district has," Wiehl said at the start of Thursday's meeting.

Districts have the authority, for example, to levy special assessments for projects.

"We have no intention of doing that anytime soon," Maiden emphasized.

According to state law, the district can hire people, construct projects and acquire property for projects, among other powers.

"This board, I look at it as having a tremendous capability, but I think it has to crawl before it walks and walk before it runs," Maiden said.

"There's a lot of potential here," Wiehl agreed. "I'm not sure how fast we'll move on it."

Projects to be funded with transportation improvement district funds must have an economic or job-creation component, and Maiden said it will be more difficult for projects in rural areas to meet that requirement.

"It's hard in some of these outlying areas of the county to be able to show the job creation and the other things that they want…, Maiden said. "Longterm we're going to do our best to make our county projects fit, but city projects may be much better or those township roads around the cities (that are more closely tied to economic development projects)."

For the County Road 7 project, Maiden said he will make the argument that the road serves the high school and local businesses, while County Road 53 serves as a flood route allowing people to get to work and students to school when there is flooding. He said the board should learn by July 31 if the projects will be funded.

With transportation infrastructure a part of economic development, the board could play a role in local economic development efforts. Wiehl is a member of the Athens County Economic Development Council, and Linscott is on the board of the Athens County Port Authority, another economic development group.

"I can see that maybe it could be tying in somehow with the port authority … road improvements to a business park or something like that," Linscott said.

"This board will work hand-in-hand with the port authority, I don't think there's any question about it," Maiden said.

Maiden and Wiehl said they see the board as a forum for discussing projects that have overlapping jurisdictions — for example, township roads that extend into a city.

"From my point of view, it is actually a chance for having one voice within in the county (on transportation issues)…," Wiehl said.

At Thursday's meeting, Maiden was appointed chairman, Eliason (who was not present) was appointed vice chairman. Wiehl was named secretary and Hall was selected as treasurer. Steve Pierson, who is Nelsonville's code enforcement director and assistant city manager, was filling in for Hall at the meeting.

The next meeting of the board is Aug. 19.