Officials with the city of Delaware have pitched Delaware County as a potential funding partner for a costly plan to improve a congested intersection, but such a deal appears to be far from a sure thing.

The city ended 2017 pushing forward with a $25 million project to expand the intersection of U.S. Route 36 and state Route 37, known locally as the Point. While the city has secured enough federal and state funding to pay for about 75 percent of the project's estimated cost, Delaware officials still need to come up with about $6.2 million to put toward the effort.

The project's high price tag stems from the need to remove and replace an existing railroad bridge at the intersection with a longer span in order to widen the roadways. Improving the intersection, which sits entirely within Delaware's municipal boundaries, has been called the "single most-critical transportation need in the city" by city Engineer Bill Ferrigno

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City Manager Tom Homan and Mayor Carolyn Riggle, in a letter dated Aug. 1, wrote to Delaware County Engineer Chris Bauserman and county Commissioner Jeff Benton to suggest a partnership on the project. The letter suggested the congested intersection was hampering economic development in the region, which makes it a problem for both the city and county.

"Recognizing the prosperity of the county seat and the county in general is directly tied to sustainable economic development, we believe that partnering with the city to help reduce the funding gap would be an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars and widely supported by residents and businesses," the letter states.

Homan said in late December he thinks county officials have "an interest" in a potential partnership but want more information from the city. He said he understands county officials may fear a funding deal as the impetus for more funding requests from Delaware or the county's other municipalities.

"I think one of the county's concerns is (setting) a precedent," he said.

County concerns

Bauserman in January said he's "certainly" concerned the county approving funding for the Point project could set a precedent that would lead other municipalities to seek funding for their own transportation projects.

While the county often collaborates with municipal governments on transportation projects that straddle jurisdictional lines, it rarely, if ever, contributes to projects wholly inside a municipality's boundaries.

The county engineer said Delaware officials have not provided the county with a request for a certain dollar amount or proposed a deadline for approving a pact regarding the Point.

"There's been no urgency communicated to us about the need for a decision," he said.

Bauserman said any potential deal would need to be thoroughly vetted by the Delaware County Prosecutor's Office. He said legal restrictions could shape or possibly even scuttle a potential deal.

"I'm not sure how far we could go legally on spending county funds on noncounty projects," he said.

Bauserman said he would not be opposed to providing some kind of support for the project if legally appropriate. He said the county's three commissioners ultimately would have to approve any such deal.

County spokeswoman Jane Hawes said the commissioners have not discussed a potential deal together because the city has not brought a formal proposal before the board.

When the county last spring announced a list of its top seven infrastructure needs -- a list based on feedback from business leaders, public officials and residents -- improvements to the Point ranked No. 3. At the time, Commissioner Jeff Benton said a potential fix to the Point was "a high-priority project" that "needs to be done."

Bauserman said he can't argue against the need for improvements at the intersection.

"I don't think there's a question it's an important project," he said.

While acknowledging the intersection's regional importance, Bauserman said that alone does not necessarily make it worthy of county funding.

Municipal matters

As the county awaits a formal proposal from the county seat, officials outside of Delaware's city limits have varied opinions on the situation.

Powell spokeswoman Megan Canavan said city officials are "monitoring to see how this plays out."

Canavan said city leaders want to see if the discussion between Delaware and the county leads to a "formal program" through which municipalities could request county funding for transportation projects.

Similar to Delaware, Powell has its own problem intersection notorious enough to garner a nickname: the Four Corners. While Powell City Council approved a street and circulation plan in 2016 that recommended $30 million in improvements near the intersection of Liberty and Olentangy streets, the city lacks the funding for nearly all of the suggested projects.

Canavan said improving the intersection, which sits about 3 miles east of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and 6 miles west of Polaris Fashion Place off state Route 750, would aid commuters, residents and visitors to the county.

"Regionally, (it) would have significant benefits," she said.

Sunbury Village Administrator Allen Rothermel, who previously served as assistant city manager in Delaware, said he did not see a problem with the city's request.

"I don't view that project as taking away money from us," he said.

He said an argument also could be made that improving traffic flow on routes 36 and 37, both of which travel through the village, would be beneficial to Sunbury.

Determined Delaware

While questions remain about a potential deal between the city and the county, Delaware officials have expressed their intent to continue pushing forward with the Point project regardless of the outcome.

Homan said city officials are working to craft a formal proposal and assuage county officials' concerns about a potential funding arrangement.

While the outline of a deal has not yet taken shape and in spite of the existing funding gap, the city has been moving forward aggressively on the project.

Delaware City Council in late November appropriated just shy of $1 million for initial design work on the Point improvements. The Ohio Department of Transportation will reimburse the city for 90 percent of design costs, which are eventually expected to top $3.3 million.

City officials at the time argued pushing the project forward aggressively could put Delaware in a better position to request additional federal and state funding to shrink the local-funding gap.

Even if the county rejects a potential funding partnership, Homan said the city intends to move ahead.

"If we had to fund it, we can manage that," he said. "It really just exhausts our resources that were going to be used for other local road projects. That pretty much kind of eats it all up."