Inconvenient truths apply to roads, too, according to Ryan

Tag-fee, unit system...

District 3 Commissioner Tom Ryan had some things he wanted to get off his chest last week about the upcoming tag-fee increase referendum and the unit system debate that has accompanied it throughout the run-up to Nov. 4. So he set up a meeting and brought along county engineer Richard Spraggins and county administrator Chris Green for technical support. The following capsules the points he made. Proposed increase not “nice”; it’s necessary

“If we don’t get this (tag-fee increase) passed, we’re going to go backward on the roads. We’re losing roads right now – county roads 36, 29, 27, 15 to name a few – because we don’t have the money to maintain them.

“The public doesn’t realize this yet. The roads don’t look that bad just driving along, but they’re cracked all to pieces. If we get a hard, wet winter, they’ll be coming up like peanut brittle next year,” he said.

“I’m tired of hearing people gripe about the commission trying to put another tax on ’em. Time and time again the people of the county have come to us – individually and as a commission – wanting us to upgrade the roads. We know the people want it done. We know they’re right. It needs to be done. But we don’t have the money to do what we’re being asked to do. There’s just not enough revenue coming in to do it.

“So we came up with a plan of how to start doing what needs to be done. We didn’t just impose it on people, although several commissions in the state have done that. We felt like we should give the people a choice. We proposed to them a vehicle to give us the money to do a lot of work on county roads. They can vote it up or down. That’s why I get perturbed when people come at me like I’ve done something bad to ’em.” Highly inconvenient problem

“The drainage pipes under these farm-to-market roads are rusted out,” Ryan said. “For years and years, when we needed to repave a road, we just went out and repaved ’em. The pipe under them was OK. But it’s not now. The pipe needs to be replaced before the roads are repaved, because you’ve got to dig up the road to get down to the old pipe and pull it out so you can put the new pipe in.”

County engineer Spraggins explained that many of the county’s farm-to-market roads were paved with the help of state and federal government in the 1950s. That’s when metal pipe under many roads was installed. Metal pipe has a service life of 40 to 50 years, he said, and those pipes are rusted out throughout the county now. Much of it must be replaced at substantial cost before roads are repaved, he said.

“I’ve got $760,000 in my budget this year,” Ryan said, “$350,000 of that goes to payroll costs. Paving cost is running $110,000 a mile now for a 20-foot-wide road. If I take the rest of what I’ve got left and pave with it, how far will it go at that rate?” (Answer: 3.7 miles, just for paving materials.) “That’s without replacing pipe, reclaiming the road (preparing the existing surface and base for repaving), or doing any other routine maintenance like pothole patching and right-of-way mowing that has to be done on other roads in the district.”

By way of example, Spraggins quoted costs of repaving several major road segments over the past five years: county road 25 this year at a cost of $2.2 million for 4.2 miles; County Line Road in 2005 at a cost of $2 million for 3 miles, with major pipe replacement; and county road 9 in 2003 at a cost of $1.8 million for 5.5 miles. The hazard of rising expectations

“I’m afraid there’s a misconception that if we get this tag fee passed, it’s gonna cure all our problems,” Ryan continued. “If we pass it, it will still take years and years to take care of all the roads in the county that need it. What I want people to understand is that it’s gotten to the point that we need the increased revenue just to keep up with cost of maintenance. Five years ago when this commission first talked about a tag-fee increase, we were talking about a $10 per tag increase, and we could have paved 40 miles a year with it. Now if it passes, with the drastic cost increases we’ve had for the last three years, we’ll be doing good to get 10 miles a year – if costs don’t keep going up like they did last year.”

The remainder of this interview, addressing problems with the unit system, will appear in The Blount Countian next week.