Making a road plan
WORTHINGTON — The Nobles County Board of Commissioners spent three hours in a special work session Monday with Public Works Director Stephen Schnieder to discuss future road projects, bridge replacements and creative ways to fund them.
With 400 miles of paved roads in the county, 14 bridges that are eligible for funding to be replaced and millions of dollars in projects that should be done, Schnieder said it was time to develop a new five-year road plan and vision for the future of local transportation. The last five-year road plan developed by the county expired last year, and Schnieder said his office has been addressing projects on a case by case basis.
“We haven’t really had a transportation overview for quite a few decades,” Schnieder said as he walked commissioners through some of the history behind road improvement projects of the past.
At one time, he said the board of commissioners had made plans to get all of the county’s gravel roads paved.
“At this point, all of our county state aid highway roads are paved,” Schnieder said, adding that they then looked at the county road system. The latest county road to be paved was Nobles County 61, which leads to the landfill.
Three other county roads that has been on the slate for possible paving included CR 54 in Little Rock and Ransom townships, CR 60 south of Wilmont and CR 55 near Maka-Oicu and Fury’s Island county parks.
“More recently, the idea was to try and maintain what we have and do more reconstruction of our older county state aid highways,” Schnieder said, pointing out CSAH 4 south of Worthington, CSAH 13 north of Rushmore and CSAH 15 near St. Kilian.
“When we worked on those in the past, we surfaced them with a thin overlay with the intent we’d get to them in the future,” he said. “Then the economy kind of took a turn, and the funding changed for us.”
The reductions in funding came at a time when the county was starting to see deterioration in its bridges. Bridge replacement has been more of a focus in recent years.
“Now we’re finding there’s a lot of bridges out there that are starting to get old and are coming up for replacement,” Schnieder said. Timber bridges, put in years ago because they were cheaper, are now deteriorating more rapidly than anticipated because of the larger vehicles and heavier weighted implements traveling over them.
State bonding money set aside in recent years to replace some of these older bridges has helped, but Schnieder said the county still has more bridge replacement projects waiting in the wings without the funding to complete them.
Currently, Schnieder said there are 14 bridges in Nobles County eligible for state funding for replacement. In addition, there are eight more bridges posted to restrict specific vehicles from passing over them.
“We should probably be doing one and a half to two bridges a year, on average, to keep up,” Schnieder said. “We haven’t been doing too bad — we just got hit with a backlog.”
Before the county can start making its long list of road and bridge projects, it also needs to look at where the funding is going to come from to complete the work.
Schnieder said his department receives about $2.5 million from the state for road and bridge work. Another $1 million comes through the local property tax levy, $277,000 comes in the form of County Program Aid, $200,000 is collected annually from the county’s wheelage tax and another $1.8 million comes from the state for road maintenance. On top of that, the department occasionally receives bonding money for bridges.
Since the 1980s, Nobles County has elected to use its state aid construction dollars to cover engineering costs and road overlays.
“Right now ... if we took all of the money from our state aid account and put it only into overlays, we’d have to get 33 years out of a new overlayment,” Schnieder said. “It isn’t going to work.”
He then asked the board members what they want to set for priorities, what their vision is for the county’s road system and how they plan to finance it.
“I can put together a five-year program based on what you want to do,” Schnieder said. “By having a five-year plan, we know what we need to be working toward.”
“I think we have relatively good roads, but I think we have a tough time keeping up with what we have,” said Commissioner Donald Linssen. “We have to make a commitment to raise the levy. We really aren’t keeping up with what we’ve got.”
Schnieder said there are other options than just increasing the local property tax levy. Those options might include implementing a gravel tax on all gravel hauled from local pits and/or enacting a half-cent sales tax for a specific road project. The sales tax option could generate up to $1.3 million a year, he said.
Bonding would also be an option, and would allow the county to do projects quicker and not have the inflation costs associated with delaying work for another year or more.
“You’d have to be spending $8 million a year, without inflation, (to keep up with projects),” said Commissioner Gene Metz. “We’re spending $3 million a year.”
“We’re not keeping up,” added Linssen.
“Legislators don’t want to raise taxes … but we’re building this tremendous hole,” Schnieder said. “There’s a lot of counties talking about turning roadways back to gravel. It’s not going to happen next year or five years from now, but sometime the system is going to break.”
“We’re treading water financially as far as keeping up with our road system,” added Commissioner Bob Demuth Jr. “I think we need to get creative with our funding, whether it’s gravel tax, sales tax or increasing the wheelage tax, rather than doing bonding.”
By the end of the meeting, commissioners asked Schnieder to develop a list of potential projects and create a five-year plan for the county. Ultimately, several commissioners suggested they consider developing a 15-year or greater vision for the county’s road system.
“I think we have to hear from you — you’re the one in the trenches here who has the history,” Commissioner Donald Linssen told Schnieder.
“My recommendation would obviously be (to fund) the bridges and keeping the paved roads in reasonably good condition,” Schnieder responded, adding that safety projects would be his third key area of focus for a five-year plan. He said he’d have the plan ready for commissioners to look at by late September or early October.