A Fork in the Road
County Highway Engineer Jim Olson chooses path that leads to retirement
Thursday, March 28, 2013 11:00 AM
When Jim Olson first came to Madison, it was through a work assignment at Marble Hill.
Jim Olson talks about his 15 years as the Jefferson County engineer during an interview at his office at the Jefferson County Highway Garage on Wednesday. Olson’s last day with the county is today. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchieemail@example.com)
Just a few years removed from his engineering studies in college and unfamiliar with the area, he expected his time in the small town to be a learning opportunity - and temporary.
"That was 1979," Olson said laughing.
Olson, now 62, never cut ties with Madison since that early point in his career more than three decades ago.
Today he will retire as Jefferson County highway engineer, a role he has held for 15 years.
"Every time I hear someone say 15 years, I say, 'It can't be 15 years,'" he said.
The highway engineer, an appointed position, helps oversee and evaluate county roadways and makes recommendations regarding construction projects to the Board of Commissioners.
The Board of Commissioners said it will re-evaluate the budget before deciding whether or not to fill the position permanently. Until then, an engineer will be hired only when needed for special projects.
Olson, a Michigan native, graduated from the University of Michigan with an engineering degree in 1975. After school, he spent some time in the Peace Corps, serving in Sierra Leone, Africa, before finding an engineering job in Chicago.
Olson worked in the private sector for 20 years - which included a position in Louisville - before being hired by the county in 1998. In between, he had met his wife, Margo, and settled down in the area.
As county engineer, Olson has created an inventory of the roadways - which includes a rating system - helped coordinate the resurfacing of more than 175 miles of roadways and replacement of 16 bridges in the county.
He also worked closely with residents and other government officials to help secure grant funding to counter a long-standing drainage issue at the Audubon Park housing area.
In 2005, the county received a historic preservation award for its work in the restoration of Tobias Bridge in Deputy. Olson helped with the restoration of the wrought-iron bridge that was constructed in 1885.
Reflecting on his career Wednesday, Olson said his time with the county has been a real eye-opener for him.
"I have a much improved understanding of the role and the importance of government in society. And I now much better understand the role of elected and appointed officials, and the pleasures and pains of this service," Olson wrote in his retirement notice to the commissioners, which he shared with The Madison Courier.
In retirement, Olson plans to work on a contract basis with the regional planning commission in Versailles on roadway planning, something that has become an interest to him recently.
He also plans to continue volunteering for the Heritage Trail Conservancy in Madison, he said.
Throughout the job, Olson said one of his biggest goals was to create a competitive and fair bidding environment for contractors.
"I always tried to have an objective look," he said. "I've always taken that very seriously."