County wants to catch up on road, bridge work

Ed Howell
Posted 8/13/17

The Walker County Commission says decreased funding from its coal tax for county roads and bridges has put roads in danger of going under altogether, leaving them to patch roads just to get …

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County wants to catch up on road, bridge work

Posted

The Walker County Commission says decreased funding from its coal tax for county roads and bridges has put roads in danger of going under altogether, leaving them to patch roads just to get by.

Indicating they are embarrassed about the road needs not being met, commissioners say district budgets in general are leaving no funds for extensive work, as the $100,000-per-mile cost leaves some districts only able to pave a handful of miles, even if a commissioner depleted his account.

That is why commissioners are looking to its proposed 1-cent sales tax to give them room to catch up. Out of the $7 million raised from the tax, $4.23 million is expected to go to county roads and bridges annually, to be divided up among the four districts annually.

Municipalities would divide up about $470,000 a year by population to also deal with road and bridge problems. Roads and bridges would be the last priority in payouts, with the municipalities getting 10 percent, and the balance going to the county’s General Fund for roads and bridges.

County voters will go to the polls from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to vote on the tax, as well as vote in the U.S. Senate primaries.

County officials announced Saturday morning a Facebook Live event has been arranged for 2 p.m. CDT this afternoon for commissioners to discuss details of the tax. The half-hour event will be covered live on the Daily Mountain Eagle’s Facebook page.

Officials in the county have complained for years about the funding situation for roads and bridges. In 2005, then-County Engineer David Edgil said $20 million was needed to replace all the problem bridges in the county.

In 2011, the Association of County Commissions of Alabama said Walker County had 15 deficient bridges and that it would cost $1.4 million a year just to replace Walker County bridges on a 50-year cycle. It also said Walker had 1,144 county miles and needed $147.8 million to repave all its paved county roads and nearly $9.9 million a year to resurface the county roads on a 15-year cycle.

All county roads need $6.2 billion to repave all roads, or more than $413 million a year for a 15-year cycle. A total of $1.3 billion would be needed to replace all the county bridges in the state, and the state should invest $88 million a year in its bridges to keep up the pace of deterioration.

Those figures came that year from a widely distributed report from the association, called “A Silent Crisis,” which also noted, “Alabama’s network of county-maintained roads and bridges is in critical condition and there is a tremendous urgency to act now. Without action, the problem will only grow worse and more costly.” New revenue is needed to address the problem, the report said, noting a national transportation research group, TRIP, stated decaying roads and bridges costs the average Alabamian an additional $162 a year to operate a vehicle.

Officials across the state have talked about raising state gas taxes, in the wake of fuel efficiency decreasing gas tax revenue for roads, but efforts have failed in the Legislature, as late as this year. The association report notes counties in the state need a minimum of $502 million to keep pace with the deterioration of rural roads and bridges.

At Monday’s commission meeting, where commissioners talked about their road needs, Walker County Commission Chairman Jerry Bishop addressed the situation.

He said the county roads, which he has ridden over extensively, are in repair mode, as the county is only getting limited money from the state gas tax. He said it hurts when people approach him on road issues, because commissioners do not have enough money to do all the needed work.

District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis said Country Club Bridge is closed now due to an accident and is waiting on insurance money to fix.

Each district budget is $800,000 a year, Davis said.

“I have 226 miles of road and 10 bridges to maintain. I have 10 employees, six part-time. My work force is made up of a majority of part-time workers. Why? Because I can’t afford to pay health insurance on all of them. I can’t afford to pay the benefit package for each one of them,” he said, noting it costs up to $10,000 a year per employee.

In years past, District 1 would have 30 employees, he said.

By the time other benefits for the four full-time employees, that is $450,000 out of an $800,000 budget — leaving $350,000 to maintain 225 miles and 10 bridges in his district.

“All of my roads need some form of repair,” Davis said, noting he has had to skin patch Smith Lake Dam Road, putting tar and gravel over the worst parts of an asphalt road.

“I didn’t want to do that. I had to do that,” he said, noting repaving it would cost $1.4 million. “Where am I going to come up with that? Now, I’ve got a finance degree from the University of Alabama, 25 years of business experience,” he said, noting other commissioners had degrees and business experience. “Math is the math. How are you going to pave that one road if you shut down everything else in your district?” He noted $350,000 is left for duties including roads, mowing and installing pipe.

“How we maintain the roads I credit to my crew. Those four full-time guys and those six part-time guys work their hind ends off every day,” he said. “If a tree goes down at 12 o’clock at night, my guys are out there with fire departments getting our trees removed.” 

As a result of funding issues, “all of my roads need maintenance,” Davis said. Burrow’s Crossing, Country Club Road, Smith Lake Dam Road and Duncan Road have all got to be repaved in the next few years or some of them will be lost, Davis said. The only paving in District 1 has been tar and gravel, or chip seal roads, with other roads getting patching.

He said he has 10 bridges, and if one goes out, he has no way to replace it with $350,000, leaving no choice but to close roads.

“Some people might say, ‘Cut your staff,’” Davis said. “You try to manage just cutting the rights-of-ways back and the calls we have on a daily basis with just 10 guys,” with four of them working only four days a week, with part-time working 29 hours a week.

District 2 Commissioner Jeff Burrough said the other commissioners could repeat what Davis said, noting he has seven full-time employees and three part-time workers. He also noted he had the second highest road amount in the county.

The Smith Chapel Bridge in his district still needs to be replaced, and he pointed out the “controversial bridge around the school,” which is mostly a state aid bridge but needs to be repaired. He pointed out Nauvoo Road is “awful,” and he didn’t know the last time it was resurfaced.

“Each commissioner is going to have a ton of secondary roads that people live on,” Burrough said. In the past, people would put the most money to where people lived, but roads where people travel to work now need attention as well. He said with current funding, the commission has no choice but to keep patching those roads.

“I’m sure all of us are in the same boat,” he said.

In the first seven months on the job, Burrough said he has gone through the equipment. “We have so much outdated equipment, it is just amazing the time and the money we spend just to try to keep that stuff going to actually perform a service for somebody,” he said. He said the tax might help so that “we might not have as much junk, or at least have two or three pieces to where we can actually do the work.”

Davis said he had similar equipment problems.

“I also have two long roads going down toward the Corona area. Not many people live on them, the Wolf Creek Road and Coal Valley, but their dirt roads need to be fixed and they have trees constantly fall in them,” Burrough said. “We are constantly picking up trees all the time.” 

He noted the fire departments help with that, and they also need to be kept in service.

District 3 Commissioner Ralph Williams said he saw the same issues in his district, noting he has the most road miles, at 352 miles, with nine full-time employees and one part-time worker. He said his equipment was worn out, and the majority of his district roads have not been paved since Neil Akins was commissioner. He said it is difficult to know where to start to catch up with the road problems.

“Of course, it starts with your money,” he said. “It bothers me to know that what I need to do, I can’t. We’re financially not able to.” 

District 4 Commissioner Steven Aderholt agreed not enough money is available to go around the districts.

“If you look at money coming in over time into the districts, our revenue streams that feed our bank accounts, the coal tax in particular was a major driver for funding for county roads in Walker County for years,” Aderholt said. “In 2002, when the Iraq War started, gas prices went through the roof. Asphalt paving prices went through the roof. Everything started going through the roof.”

While prices have gone up on many items, revenue for the coal tax went down, he said.

“Last year alone, it was cut in half from the year before because of the, quote unquote, war on coal,” Aderholt said, resulting in decreases in prices and in production volumes of coal. As a result, the county roads have suffered from a lack of tax revenue from coal.

According to County Administrator Cheryl Ganey Thursday, the coal tax in question goes to the districts only for construction, maintenance and repair of roads, bridges and ferries. In Fiscal Year 2008, the coal tax brought in $145,000 for each district. That declined in following years, as seen in district revenues: $109,636 in Fiscal Year 2014, $68,027 in Fiscal Year 2015 and $40,206 in Fiscal Year 2016.

“I don’t think people understand necessarily,” Aderholt said. “When I say we lack funding, I still don’t think people grasp how much funding we actually lack.” His district budget numbers show he has $400,000 in his district RRR account. His coal tax fund amounts to $5,000, so that would make $405,000.

“I didn’t get that amount last month, folks,” he said. “I haven’t paved roads in District 4 in almost three years now, and then I paved five miles. It costs $100,000 to pave one mile of road. I got four miles of roads sitting right now in my district account that I can pave right now. And I’m done. We shut down the district, we don’t cut grass, we don’t pick up trash, we don’t do anything else for several years because I paved four miles of road.” 

He noted a question earlier in the meeting about paving Empire Road.

“I paved one lane that was the worst lane when I came into office because it was really dangerous,” Aderholt said. “It was four miles of one side. It was over $230,000.” 

Aderholt said revenue is needed with similar road mileage as the other districts have. Without passing the proposed sales tax, there would not be many roads left much longer.

Commissioners also released dollar estimates on what each city would get annually from the tax, based on population.

The populations and dollar amounts for each city are as follows: Carbon Hill, 1,996, $36,726.40; Cordova, 2,061, $37,922.40; Dora, 1,991, $36,634.40; Eldridge, 130, $2,392; Jasper, 14,222, $261,684; Kansas, 225, $4,140; Nauvoo, 221, $4,066.40; Oakman, 775, $14,260; Parrish, 973, $17,903.20; Sipsey, 426, $7,838.40; and Sumiton, 2,520, $46,368.