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3/11/2012 11:00:00 AM
Budget squeeze has some Wabash Valley counties returning to gravel roads
Off again, on again: County Road 300 North between 200 and 300 West is one of the broken roads in Clay County. The paved road had deteriorated to the point it had to be broken and returned to a gravel surface. Tribune-Star/Jim Avelis
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Off again, on again: County Road 300 North between 200 and 300 West is one of the broken roads in Clay County. The paved road had deteriorated to the point it had to be broken and returned to a gravel surface. Tribune-Star/Jim Avelis

Howard Greninger, Tribune-Star

Facing tighter budgets, some Wabash Valley counties have been forced to replace portions of asphalt-covered county roads with stretches of gravel surfaces to save on road repair costs.

Vermillion County has nearly 193 miles of paved road and almost as much — 189 miles — of gravel road.

County Commissioner Tim Wilson, who oversees roads in northern Vermillion County, said about 10 to 12 miles of road has been converted back to gravel surfaces in the past two years. “And we are looking at more,” Wilson said. “We look at any road that is a secondary road, which might be a dead-end or a connecting road.

“In fact, we have had to send some of our highway guys back to road school to learn how to maintain a gravel road,” Wilson said.

He estimates about 16 miles of roadway have been returned to gravel in Vermillion County.

“It is many roads that add up to that amount. It is in segments. Where the blacktop is still good, we leave it, especially in front of houses. We try to leave it for dust control,” Wilson said. “If there is an area that is bad, we mill it up.”

Wilson said one sticking point to him is the lack of a statewide distribution of excise tax from pickup truck license plates. Pickup trucks are not included in the state’s local road and street funding formula, which benefits urban counties.

“We get excise tax off of license plates for cars, but nothing off of [license plates for] pickup trucks,” Wilson said.

Pickup trucks can also be plated with a car plate, such as specialty plates, and that revenue does return to the county of origin.

Wilson said heavier truck usage on county roads has also caused more damage. “Trash trucks are our worst enemy,” he said.

Commissioner Harry Crossley said about one mile of county road has been converted to gravel in southern Vermillion County. “Chip-and-seal roads are the ones being ground up, not the good blacktop roads. But, if the money situation keeps getting worse, we will have to turn some more roads back into gravel,” Crossley said.

Charlie Brown, president of the Clay County Board of Commissioners, said Clay County, with 682 miles of road, has converted about eight miles of back to gravel.

While this winter has been moderate, weather the two previous years wreaked havoc on chip-and-seal roads in the county, Brown said, and the county was not able to keep pace with maintenance needs.

“It costs about $10,000 a mile for a chip-and-seal road and without a wheel tax, we just don’t have the money to maintain them, so we are reverting a lot of them back to gravel,” Brown said.

Brown said commissioners hope the Clay County Council will adopt and pass a wheel tax for the county, which must be done before July. Even if passed this year, it would be a year before funding would be available for roads, Brown said.

“And we still will be playing catch up for quite a while” on road maintenance, Brown said.

Vigo, Parke, Sullivan and Vermillion counties each impose a county wheel tax for road maintenance.

Brown said over the past four years, Clay County’s highway department budget has been reduced about $1 million. “We cut our equipment fund down to nothing and on our manpower, I am running on five less people than five years ago just due to budget restraints. Right now we basically are running a service department. If you got a problem, we try to go out and fix it,” Brown said.

“Bottom line, it money,” Brown said.

Benji Boyd, county engineer for Sullivan County, said with 340 miles of paved road and 540 gravel roads, Sullivan County may also soon be forced to consider converting more chip-and-seal roads into gravel roads.

“When it gets to where you are patching the patches, and we are not too far from that, then we will have to start turning them back to gravel,” Boyd said.

The engineer estimated some county roads could deteriorate in five years or less and need to be converted into gravel roads. “It is the budget, which has gone significantly compared to eight or nine years ago,” he said, “and it keeps going down.”

Paved county roads, Boyd said, typically last 12 to 14 years, which equates to the need to replace about 25 miles of roadway in the county annually. “This year we might pave a mile or two, so eventually that catches up to you, and it has been that way for a few years now,” Boyd said.

“What do you do? You can grade a gravel road, but not a blacktop road,” he said.

Vigo and Parke counties each have managed to stay on track with long-term road plans.

George Nicholas, president of Parke County Board of Commissioners, said a plan adopted about 16 years ago applied the county’s budget to road maintenance and replacement of the county’s 742 miles of road. “We initiated that plan and deemed it was necessary to convert about 200 miles of those paved roads back to gravel.”

The county now has a nearly equal amount of paved and gravel roads, with 364 miles paved and 362 in gravel roads. The county also has about 15 miles of unimproved roads. “We don’t anticipate having to turn any more roads back to gravel,” Nicholas said.

Nicholas said the county had higher winter-related road expenses last year — that meant only about 25 percent of its summer maintenance work could be done. A mild winter this year has helped the highway budget.

“This summer we have every intention of fulfilling what we had planned for last year, plus doing what we intend to do this year,” Nicholas said. “It will be more chip-and-seal and cold-pack wedging process” for road maintenance, he added.

Vigo County, despite cutbacks in its budget, has maintained its paved roads.

“We have no intention of turning any of our paved roads back into gravel roads, at least not in the foreseeable future,” said Vigo County Commissioner Judith Anderson. “We have to keep the most well-traveled areas paved and we intend to keep that up. We have a long-term plan which we try to follow, but we have to re-evaluate that plan every spring.”

As an example, Park Avenue, Chamberlain Street and North Clinton Road have all been repaved in the past two years, Anderson said.

Vigo County has 508 miles of paved roads, 362 miles of gravel roads and 22 concrete roads, many in county subdivisions.

Gerald Lindsay, Vigo County highway superintendent, said when considering maintenance, road miles must be doubled, which is called lane miles. “Lane miles are going up the road in one direction and down the same road in the other, so it is a lot more than road miles,” he said.

Related Stories:
• Brown, Owen counties, with no money for paving, go back to gravel
• EDITORIAL: Tax cuts leave roads in the dust
• EDITORIAL: Reform plan would boost road funding

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