Friday, July 6, 2012

Millions needed to rebuild county roads

Staff: Road and Bridge spending should be higher


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Blaine County needs to spend more on roads—a lot more—to keep them in good repair, county staff members said during a budget hearing late last month.

Char Nelson, Blaine County director of operations, said during a public hearing on Monday, June 18, that the county's road and bridge budget is woefully below what it should be for basic road maintenance.

The county spends $600,000 annually to maintain asphalt roads and $363,000 annually for gravel roads.

Nelson argued that according to a transportation plan conducted by Boise-based consultants Keller and Associates, the county should be spending $1.4 million annually just for asphalt road maintenance.

Gravel road maintenance should be budgeted for $400,000, she added, with an additional $1 million budgeted for gravel road improvements.

Blaine County Road and Bridge, a division of the Blaine County Operations department, is in charge of maintaining and improving approximately 450 miles of county roads. About 125 miles of those roads are paved, 231 miles are gravel, 44 miles are improved dirt roads and 50 miles are unimproved roads.

Nelson estimated in her report, based on Keller and Associates' preliminary study, that roughly 80 miles of asphalt roads need to either be entirely reconstructed or need to undergo immediate maintenance such as patching or chip sealing.

The main problem, Nelson said in a later interview, is that many of the roads are much older than the optimum service life.

A road that has just been built has an estimated service life of 19 years; the most efficient maintenance schedule for a road system is to have an average remaining service life of 11 to 13 years.

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The average remaining service life of Blaine County asphalt roads is 9.5 years, Nelson said, with 80 miles of roads falling under that mark.

"Funding for asphalt roadways should be over three times what Blaine County is spending now," Nelson said in her report, adding that this funding is absolutely necessary for a "sustainable" roadways system.

As for gravel roads, the study showed that 82 percent of the county's gravel road system—an estimated 220 miles—is in need of moderate to major improvements, including 15 miles that need to be entirely reconstructed.

An additional 12 to 15 paved roads will require major upgrades in the next 10 years, Nelson said, and suggested that $2 million should be set aside annually into a capital improvements fund.

Nelson also requested $6.5 million over the next 20 years to replace road and bridge equipment such as graders.

"With few exceptions, road equipment ranges from 10 to 56 years old," she said in her report.

Nelson said parts for these machines are often unavailable and as there is no mechanic on staff, repair costs are increasing steadily.

"Road and Bridge staff are spending less time maintaining county roads, and ultimately customer satisfaction is decreasing," she said.

The budget request also includes an undetermined amount to remodel the Carey Road and Bridge facility, parts of which are more than 90 years old. Nelson said the most recent section was built more than 30 years ago and has not been remodeled since.

Commissioner Larry Schoen said the requests would be placed in context with other capital improvement funds.

He added that there are other methods of funding, including creation of a short-term levy or formation of a highway district, both of which require voter approval.

Kate Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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