BACKUS - It is unlikely that Cass County will convert any new gravel road miles to asphalt after 2011. It will take creative funding shift to keep existing paved roads in good to excellent condition in the future.
This is the message County Engineer David Enblom brought to the county board in a special meeting Tuesday on the status of the county's road system.
When the state gas tax increased, the recession also hit. Drivers have driven fewer miles, leaving state gas tax collections about level. This does not take into account the future potential lost revenue from electric vehicles, which pay no gas tax, or improved gas efficiency mandates for vehicles.
Cass County's state aid road construction allotment has risen only 3 percent since 2001 to $2,448,166 in 2010, Enblom said. The cost to rebuild a gravel road, then pave it for the first time has increased 44 percent during that time and now costs $395,000 per mile, he said.
The cost to grind up old pavement and overlay new bituminous on existing paved roads has jumped 70 percent since 2001 to $142,995 per mile, Enblom reported.
In 2010, Cass levied $3,768,503 for the highway department and another $850,000 for county road construction. The county received between $1.5 and $2.9 million federal funding each of most of the last 10 years, depending upon specific projects qualifying as a federal project each year.
Leech Lake Reservation obtained extra federal stimulus road funding and an improved formula for federal road support in 2010, so has contributed $1.6 million to enable the county to re-pave part of County State Aid Highway 8 this year without using county state aid money.
Federal rules could change in response to objections other reservations raised to the formula that enabled Leech Lake to get extra funding this year, Enblom said. Leech Lake's federal road allotment went from $1 million in prior years to $8 million this year, but Enblom predicted the most the local reservation likely will get in future years will be about $4 million.
While Leech Lake and county officials have tried to cooperate in their appeal for federal funds and county commissioners were hopeful Tuesday continued cooperation with the tribal council might yield future Indian allotment funds for county roads, Enblom said it all will depend on how successful Leech Lake is in lobbying and how high a priority tribal council members place on any specific county highway for tribal members' use.
A newer MnDOT service runs every four years now. It provides counties with a video of each paved state aid road in the county and quality rating for each road. The test run in 2005 and 2009 shows Cass has only state aid highway, CSAH 44 from Highway 371 to Highway 84, rated as "very poor".
Another 15 road sections or about 22 percent of the paved state aid system is "poor." About 25 percent is "fair." About 22 percent is "good." About 29 percent is "excellent."
Pavement cracks return in the same places after five years when just an overlay is done, Enblom said. Crack returns take seven years if the old pavement is milled before the new overlay. Pavement life generally is about 20 years before repaving.
Enblom said he will complete with the 2011 paving on County Road 109 a project to pave all county roads (those ineligible for state aid money) carrying over 150 vehicles per day. With traffic counts down in general, Enblom does not expect more county roads to qualify soon.
Tuesday, he recommended the county board continue levying the $850,000 per year previously spend on county road paving and shift its use to repaving county state aid highways on the "poor" list. The board took no action Tuesday on this suggestion.
By doing this, he believes the county can resurface CSAH 44 and 13 of the 15 roads on the "poor" list in the next five years. He hopes to obtain additional federal funding before 10 years pass, so the half of the "fair" roads he says will become "poor" by then also can be repaved.
Cass has tried to purchase new highway equipment (graders, trucks, loaders) on a rotation that keeps equipment from reaching a high maintenance cost stage. Enblom said the highway equipment maintenance department has had three fewer employees since the county began trading off equipment more frequently.
The county now generally keeps graders 12 years: plow trucks, 14; tractor/loader/backhoe and utility trailers, 18; front end loader, 20; mower tractors, sign truck, survey pickup, 15; service truck, 10; pickup trucks, as needed.
The $250,000 per year equipment allocation now only pays for one new road grader, with none left to upgrade trucks or loaders. Equipment costs have jumped 50 to 70 percent the last 10 years.
Administrator Robert Yochum said the county board could designate for highway equipment the annual $284,000 currently being placed into a capital fund. That fund originally was established toward future county buildings. With building projects on hold and the fund now at $10,000,000, it should be sufficient to cover any existing building maintenance or improvements, the ARMER emergency radio communications costs and still keep some reserves, Yochum said.
Future money being collected for that fund could be reallocated to highway capital purchases, he said. Chief Financial Officer Larry Wolfe said the board could continue to place that revenue in the capital fund, but allow Enblom to purchase equipment through the fund on an item-by-item basis. The board took no action Tuesday on the capital fund.
Enblom also outlined road safety improvements he hopes to implement under a federal grant. Cass's safety plan MnDOT requires for allotting the money calls for more intersection lighting, more yellow chevron curve signs and safety wedges. The latter are angled strips of asphalt running along the pavement edge to the ground to eliminate a sharp edge that leads drivers who go off pavement to lose control when they over-correct to get back onto pavement.
Intersection lighting has been very popular with the public he said. Rumble strips running on the fog line were not popular.
Cass had to remove those installed on CSAH 77 when neighbors objected to the constant noise created as drivers ran over the rumbles. Where any are used in the future, rumble strips would be installed beyond the fog line on the shoulder, so, hopefully, fewer drivers would run over them. They are intended to keep drivers from going off a road.
Interestingly, fewer people run off sharper curves than those designed to carry traffic at 50 miles per hour. People tend to slow up for a sharp curve, but not a 50-mile per hour curve, Enblom said. Therefore, more chevron curve marking signs will be installed on those higher speed curves, he said.
In a few places, the county will install flashing yellow lights ahead of stop signs on county roads.
The board asked for more information, especially about the existing age of the county highway equipment fleet, before taking action at a future meeting on Enblom's recommendations.
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