Too many 'Band-Aids' on county roadsThe already serious road problems facing Davison and other South Dakota counties were made worse this spring when some roads, already saturated from winter runoff, were rendered impassable by heavy rains. Davison County has about 173 miles of blacktop and roughly 560 miles of county and township gravel roads. It’s unlikely the county will be able to maintain some deteriorating asphalt roads in a safe condition unless those roads are ground up and returned to gravel, according to County Commission Chairman David Weitala.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
The already serious road problems facing Davison and other South Dakota counties were made worse this spring when some roads, already saturated from winter runoff, were rendered impassable by heavy rains.
Davison County has about 173 miles of blacktop and roughly 560 miles of county and township gravel roads. It’s unlikely the county will be able to maintain some deteriorating asphalt roads in a safe condition unless those roads are ground up and returned to gravel, according to County Commission Chairman David Weitala.
“At this point, we have too many Band-Aids on roads,” he said.
That’s an accurate appraisal, said Davison County Highway Superintendent Rusty Weinberg.
“If roads get too far gone, we’ll end up throwing good money at bad roads,” he said.
That begs the question, how many roads are already too far gone? Weinberg estimates 100 miles of asphalt “need to be re-ground, re-shaped and re-done.” About 65 miles of paved roads are in good condition, he said.
It could take $12 million to $15 million to put a 2-inch asphalt mat on every one of those roads over a 10-year period, he said. The county, which has a $7 million total annual budget, spends about $2.5 million annually to maintain its roads, an amount that includes federal highway dollars.
At this time, the worst roads are in the northwest part of the county, Weinberg said. Among them are:
* 247th Street from the Poet ethanol plant west to the Aurora County line;
* Betts Road north of Interstate 90 to 247th Street;
* and 404th Avenue four miles north of 247th Street.
Roads in the southern part of the county, even long-discussed County Highway 41, are faring better than northern roads, which have been more heavily impacted by grain trucks, Weinberg said.
The commissioners say their options are limited when it comes to seeking more funding for county road maintenance.
They have a short list of fundraising options that includes property tax opt-outs and wheel taxes, which counties can enact on their own, and increased vehicle registration fees or a countywide sales tax, which would have to be enacted by the state Legislature. While there are municipal and state sales taxes, no county sales tax has been authorized to date.
Weitala is not convinced that property taxes are the best way to fund highways and, he said, “I just don’t see an opt-out vote coming down the road.”
An “opt-out” is the process used to collect more property taxes than the state’s limits on yearly tax increases allow.
The problem with all road-funding options, Weitala said, is that they are unlikely to be approved by voters.
“The economy’s down and people are in tough straits, but we have to ask, how do we find the money we need?” he said. “We have too much blacktop to support with our current income.”
State Department of Revenue records show that, of the 50 county opt-outs proposed since 1998 in South Dakota, 31 were passed either by a county commission or a vote of the public, two were rescinded and 17 were defeated by voters.
Last month, voters rejected property tax opt-outs of $850,000 in Brown County and $500,000 in Marshall County. Brown County’s voters also defeated opt-outs in 1998, 2002 and 2004.
Brown County Commissioner Duane Sutton said his county will do what it can to maintain roads after suffering through two tough winters and an extremely wet spring.
“With the amount of road damage and breakup that we’ve got, we just keep doing patchwork to try and make our 500 miles of asphalt roads as safe and passable as we can with what we have to work with.”
The $850,000 amount was chosen to replace revenues the county lost when South Dakota repealed the personal property tax in 2000, county officials said.
This week in Aurora County, commissioners passed a 10-year, $400,000 annual opt-out. It will take a petition signed by 5 percent of the county’s registered voters to put the opt-out on the November ballot.
State law allows counties to levy a wheel tax on motor vehicles not to exceed $4 a wheel, but the total tax may not exceed $16 per vehicle, regardless of the number of wheels on a vehicle.
The wheel tax must be placed in a county’s road and bridge fund and must be used for road maintenance. According to Davison County Auditor Susan Kiepke, Davison County’s $2-per-wheel tax generated $189,846 in 2007, $192,405 in 2008, $200,491 in 2009 and $84,110 through May of 2010.
Commissioner Gerald Weiss said the county needs more money for road repairs, but he would not vote for a wheel tax increase because the current tax is not fairly imposed.
“The people who are paying it have four wheels on the highways and the people who have 18 wheels — who are doing the damage — only pay for four wheels. Four-wheelers shouldn’t be the only one stuck for fixing the roads,” he said.
“I would like to see the Legislature change it over to all wheels, not just four wheels. Then we would have tax money coming in.”
Beadle County Commission Chairman Dick Werner said his board has tried three times to raise his county’s $2-per-wheel tax, and the matter was voted down three times by the public.
Commissioners can impose a wheel tax increase administratively, and it becomes law if it is not challenged by voters and referred to a ballot.
But the Beadle commissioners chose to put a measure on the June 8 ballot that would have increased the wheel tax from $2 to $4 a wheel. It failed 60 percent to 40 percent.
Werner doesn’t see a fourth try in the cards, but money is needed.
“Our road maintenance costs have doubled in 10 years, but our income has not,” he said.
Instead, Beadle commissioners plan to ask voters for a three-year opt-out of $300,000 to $500,000 annually.
On a side note, Werner said research showed that applying a wheel tax to all vehicle wheels would generate only about $10,000 more a year, because large trucks with multiple wheels constitute a minority of vehicles in his county.
Why do measures get rejected by the public?
“People just don’t want to be taxed,” Werner said. “People want safe streets and good streets; they just don’t want to pay for them.”
Werner said that until taxpayers feel some personal pain from service cutbacks, they are unlikely to vote for higher taxes, even for necessary services.
Also, city dwellers may not understand the urgency for repair of rural roads, he said.
“They don’t use them, so in their minds they don’t need them,” he said. Werner said his commission tried to sell the roads as important links to city commerce, but the message was not received.
Werner said he sees a cutback to more basic services in his county’s future, unless more revenue can be found.
Davison County Commissioner Denny Kiner believes there’s a lack of political will at the state level to do what’s needed to generate money for roads.
“Nobody I’ve talked to believes that our license-plate fees shouldn’t be raised,” he said, “except politicians.”
State Sen, Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, is not counted in that group.
In an August 2009 op-ed column published in The Daily Republic, Vehle lobbied for more money to fix state and county roads and pointed out that about 60 percent of state highway money comes from the federal government. The rest comes from the 22-cent state gas/diesel tax and the 3 percent excise tax on vehicle purchases.
Gas and diesel taxes and excise taxes go to state roads, and license-plate fees go to the counties, townships and municipalities.
Like Kiner, Vehle believes those plate fees are absurdly low.
“My 2006 Buick license registration costs $44 in South Dakota, but would be $93 in North Dakota, $242 in Minnesota, $270 in Iowa, $362.50 in Nebraska, $243 in Wyoming and $304.77 in Montana,” Vehle said.
Last year’s bill to increase registration fees, when fully implemented, would have provided about $30 million each year to South Dakota counties, townships and municipalities, Vehle said, but it died along with another Vehle proposal for a 6-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase split over two years, which he called a “motor fuel highway user fee,” because it would have targeted those who use the roads most.
When he saw there was little support for the user-fee bill in last year’s tight fiscal climate, Vehle pulled the trigger in committee and killed it himself.
“I didn’t have the support I needed, and there was no sense taking it to the (House) floor and augering it into the ground,” he said.
Vehle stacked his chips so he could play another day, but he believes legislative sentiment is slowly, but surely, swinging his way.
“There’s a ton of roads statewide that are in rough shape and will need a lot of work,” he said. “This year, I got ‘No’s’ from those who said ‘H*ll no’ the year before, and that’s a big difference.”
Many of the county roads in the worst shape are farm-to-market roads that were minimally paved 40 to 50 years ago, Highway Superintendent Weinberg said.
The “blotter-coated” roads were so named because they consisted of packed and prepared gravel that was sprayed with a liquid asphalt emulsion and then covered with fine chip-and-seal gravel. The more extravagant blotter paving jobs had up to 1 inch of asphalt.
“It was basically for dust control,” he said, “but it worked really well.”
Weinberg has a $2.5 million budget in 2010. He has requested about $3.3 million for 2011, an amount that includes $1.9 million for gravel chip-and-seal projects. He also understands that it is unlikely such a substantial request will escape the budget knife.
Weinberg said that five years ago, asphalt sold for $30 a ton. Today it costs $61 a ton.
He believes he can use the old blotter-coat technique, coupled with modern technology, to stretch the county road budget.
The county’s new Asphalt Zipper road-grinding machine can be used to grind up and recycle old pavement. Alternatively, it can be used to tear up old gravel roads so they can be more easily re-shaped.
Weinberg would like to tear up some roads to a depth of 6 inches to 1 foot and lay down a layer of geotextile fabric that will keep upper and lower gravel layers from mixing. Once roads are prepared and packed, he would use the old blotter sealing method to stabilize the reshaped road.
“I’d like to experiment on a quarter-mile stretch and use the method on a heavy truck traffic area and see how it holds,” he said. The old roads held for years using the cheaper method.
If it works, Weinberg figures he will be able to re-condition a mile of road for about $50,000 to $60,000 a mile, or one-third of the $150,000 per mile cost of installing a 2-inch asphalt mat.
“These chip-seal roads worked for years. Technology is great, but sometimes you’ve got to step back and use some of the older ways,” he said. “And they worked just fine.”
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