Challenge grows in scope with each passing year.

It used to be that commissioners could think (dream) about converting a well-used gravel surface County State Aid Highway into a paved road… that we could look at a county map and envision where it made sense in the transportation grid to hard-surface another road.

    But because of the cost of bituminous, which has more than doubled in the past five years, these thoughts are no longer on the table. The bituminous cost in 2007, according to Polk County Engineer Richard Sanders, was $22 per ton. The most recent bituminous costs are at $50 a ton.

    Gone is the time such as that which occurred in 1998 when a group of residents began a campaign for having the 8 miles of CSAH 18 hard surfaced. Located east of Fisher, the road goes north from U.S. 2 to CSAH 17. Like many others in Polk County, it carries a significant amount of farm-to-market truck traffic in addition to school bus and other normal day-to-day vehicle traffic.

The case was made
    Despite having problems in meeting the minimum criteria for hard surfacing — in particular, the average daily traffic (ADT) minimum — the group persevered by using a few other means. Their case, which was backed by a petition signed by 160 area residents (commissioners call these people constituents), made a point of noting that when the road was grade widened in 1984 it was promised that it would be hard-surfaced two years later.

    For whatever reason, that “promise” had never materialized.

    A factor in their presentation was that farm truck traffic counted more than automobile traffic toward the ADT number. They said that a new traffic count was needed. While there was speculation by some outside interests that additional traffic might have been arranged to pump up the new ADT numbers, the end result was that then Highway Engineer Roger Diesen determined that a hard-surfacing project could be undertaken.

    And it was, thank you in part to two persistent farmwives whose attendance at virtually every County Board meeting for about a year made sure that the topic wouldn’t fade into the sunset.

Funds were there
    Through all of this there was never really an issue about funding; it was about the other criteria. At the time, County State Aid Highway dollars were enough to cover some new hard surfacing in addition to what was needed each year to maintain the existing hard surface road system. As commissioners campaigned for the hard surfacing projects in their districts, the only question was where the “construction” portion of the money would be spent.

    That is no longer the case. The county’s concern now is with being able to maintain its existing hard-surface road system. This has become a real issue. It hasn’t happened yet in Polk but there are some local road jurisdictions that are nearing the point where they might have to let a few blacktop roads go back to gravel. The word is that this has already happened in parts of a neighboring state.

    While the overall amount of dollars from gas taxes allocated to Polk County has gone up — from $6.3 million in 2007 to $7.17 million in 2012 — it has not nearly been enough to offset the jump in bituminous prices. The other costs of construction, such as for excavation and the aggregate base have only gone up slightly by comparison. It is the cost of bituminous (because of oil prices) that has created a situation where it would take a minor miracle for Polk County to be able to hard surface another road in the foreseeable future.

Weight watching
    This is why the county has become so concerned about compliance with the weight limit measures that will prolong its hard surface road system. Simply put, we need to live within the weight limits for our roads or face a time when some of them may have to go back to gravel.

    And it is a fact that without the generation of additional revenue, we could be on a crisis course in just being able to maintain what we have. Current state legislation being proposed in St. Paul would allow for a 5-cent per gallon tax increase, would allow for the collection of up to a $20 wheelage tax per vehicle, and would allow county boards to institute a quarter-cent sales tax without going through a referendum.

    As Sanders says, “Stay tuned on these measures. We will need an infusion of dollars just to maintain what we have and more if we want to expand the system in the future.”

    And, he adds, “Please take care of our roads.”

    Thoughts expressed in this column are those of the author and are not necessarily a reflection of the opinions of the other members of the Polk County Board of Commissioners.