Commissioners will explain your road problem from A to Z, but why won’t they tell you WHEN they’ll fix it?



Citizens often get frustrated when problems on their roads don’t get fixed. At some point, after what they think is a more-than-reasonable period of time – and often after one or more conversations with their commissioner – they come to work session to appeal to the full commission.

Often they get a virtual encyclopedia on the technical and sometimes not-so-technical reasons why roads in general, and their road in particular, take so long to repair. If they don’t absorb the full presentation, it’s often because they’re listening for the one subject that usually isn’t addressed: WHEN their problem is going to be solved.

Why do commissioners often seem reluctant to make a commitment on WHEN their constituent’s problem will be fixed? Two reasons. One short. One long. Both related.

Short answer first. It’s a phenomenon we can all relate to: making a commitment and being unable to keep it. Happens to everyone. But when it happens to a commissioner, it can get very nasty and very public. Once they’ve been burned, they don’t want it to happen ever again. Result: they’re gun-shy about time commitments. Rightfully so? Well, understandable, at least.

Long answer. A chronic occupational hazard of the commissioner’s job is predictability, or more to the point, lack of it. It’s a job that requires the most diligent efforts to plan ahead and schedule the work, coordinating major variables such as available budget, workload, job time requirements, equipment availability, and other items. And it’s a job that often – some might say usually – frustrates the most diligent efforts to plan and schedule carefully.

Why? It would be best to let the four commissioners give examples in their own words, but there isn’t time and space at the moment to do that. So, the various things that cause the best-laid plans to go awry are summarized here, based on information they provided. It’s the weather

The major factor is simply bad weather: tornadoes, floods, hard rains, ice and snow, extreme cold, even drought. Every one of those conditions sets back a carefully prepared paving schedule for county roads. How? By wrecking roads, ditches, culverts, new pavement, old pavement, rights-of way, bridges.

Not responding to such major damage is not an option. It’s suddenly the top priority, must be done immediately, and usually takes outsized chunks of both the district’s dollar budget and its workload (time) budget. A relatively minor weather event like a single bad rainstorm can result in loss of a week or more work that the district road crew could otherwise spend on scheduled projects, and may cost as much as one or more of those scheduled projects. ( What is the road crew doing that could take a week? Examples: cleaning ditches. Repairing drainageways. Clearing stopped-up culverts. And so forth.) For a major storm event affecting a large area of the county, multiply that impact by 10. Or 20. Or more. And redo the paving schedule. Some roads scheduled for paving late in the year won’t make it. A major storm means both budgets are shot: the money budget and the time budget. And everyone who was expecting their road problem to be solved this summer or this fall or this year is going to be upset. It doesn’t sound courteous, but the response to that, minus sugar coating, is “Deal with it. It’s the real world.” Other inconvenient realities

There are other causes of unavoidable delays. This article won’t detail all of them, but here are three more.

•A lot of routine work must be done; it takes time, and creates delays when unanticipated problems occur. For example, mowing rights-of-way takes roughly two months for one district for each of two summer cycles. It takes a majority of the road crew for each cycle, reducing the amount of time that can be spent on road paving or other improvements. All districts face a similar challenge.

•Equipment failure is a reality. It causes inevitable delays. It’s not an excuse. You can’t check off the punch list when your grader is broken down. Or your tractor, or your mower, or your dump truck.

•Administrative disruptions happen. They can play havoc with an annual paving schedule. A couple of years ago, it suddenly became clear after a particularly bad winter, that some of the county’s farm-to-market roads were not going to meet annual inspection standards imposed on all such federally-funded roads. If the roads don’t pass, federal funding to the tune of more than $500,000 annually could be withdrawn. Everybody had to drop everything and get those roads up to standard before inspection time: paving, guardrails, culverts, rights-of-way, signage, and so on. It’s all got to be fixed, and fixed right – before the deadline. The paving schedule takes a back seat (commissioners won’t like that terminology) until that work is done, and it better be up to spec. Losing half million dollars a year and change wasn’t an option. Light at the end of the tunnel?

Excuses? Well, excuses or not, it’s the real world. Stuff happens. Can the situation be improved? Well, break it down. Two factors govern road work scheduling: time and money. There’s only so much time. It could be increased only by adding more people. So, its all about increasing time and increasing money, and time is money. Therefore…? You draw the conclusion…or argue with it, if you like.