Engineer: No quick fix for roads

Published 6:20 pm Friday, January 29, 2010

Perhaps Nolan Easterling best summed up Chilton County’s road situation when he called it a “150-year-old problem.”

Easterling, a local business owner, lives on County Road 455 not far from where a wooden bridge washed out from recent floods.

“My great-great-grandfather helped put those pilings under that bridge,” Easterling told the Chilton County Commission in a recent meeting.

You could drive anywhere in the county and find a similar story. Ask any of the residents who packed the commission meeting room last Monday night.

Ask County Engineer Tony Wearren and he will tell you that weather — not neglect — is the main problem with roads. From Wearren’s perspective, what many see as neglect is simply the lack of equipment and manpower.

“We’ve been pulling the construction crew off projects. We’ve had to delay construction of bond roads just to help with maintenance,” Wearren said Friday.

With 500 miles of dirt roads and six motor graders, there is more than enough work to be done. Considering that ratio, there’s no quick fix.

“Really, we could use 20 more people and the equipment to go with it,” Wearren said, estimating that the cost of adding approximately 20 people would come to about $600,000 per year.

If the rain let off for good, he said, it would take at least six months to get things back to normal. Until then, all the county can do is try to keep the roads usable.

“We just want to keep them passable. They’ve deteriorated to the point that we can’t repair them,” he said.

Recently, the road department has focused primarily on dirt roads. But there are just as many issues with paved roads that are slowly turning back into dirt. Then there are the five closed bridges, and the 27 others in danger of being closed.

Bridges aside, the cost of resurfacing far outweighs the county’s budget, Wearren explained.

“When you’re looking at paving projects of $200,000 a mile, you’re looking at significant money,” he said.

Of the county’s $15 million total budget, about $3 million was budgeted for the road department. Its only source of tax revenue is from the gasoline fund, which is 16 cents on the gallon. This money goes to the state and is divided two ways — 55 percent among counties according to population, and 45 percent appropriated equally.

Commissioner Allen Caton said while the county receives about $500,000 to pave state routes each year, there are currently no grants for other paving projects.

“There’s not any matching grant money to pave roads with,” he said.

Discussion of a 1-cent sales tax has come up in commission work sessions, but not all legislators support an increase in today’s economy.