Oregon county roads at crisis point
The Oregon House Committee on Transportation and Economic Development heard testimony Monday about the problems Oregon counties continue to experience with their roads. Of the 68,128 road miles in Oregon, counties are responsible for 26,692 miles, 39 percent. The remainder is divided between the federal government, Oregon Department of Transportation and cities. Jon Oshel, County Road Program Manager for the Association of Oregon Counties (AOC) told the House committee, chaired by Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) and members that funding for maintenance of county roads is jeopardized by the loss of federal forest payments under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. "If Congress fails to reauthorize those payments," Oshel said, "Oregon county road departments will experience a $40 million annual loss."
Oshel pointed out that other than the federal payments, Oregon counties rely on a share of the state's gas tax to fund road operations. Counties cannot use property taxes to fund road operations.
Lane County Commissioner Sid Leiken said his county has a $6 billion investment in its road infrastructure. There are 1,432 miles of county roads in the 4,553 square mile county (about the size of the State of Connecticut) and 414 bridges. In order to maintain that infrastructure, Leiken says the county will have to spend $38 million this fiscal year. "That means we will have to use $10 million of our dwindling reserve fund just to stay even with our roads," Leiken said. He said that at that rate, Lane County will have no road fund reserves left by 2017. According to Leiken, Lane County has drastically reduced its capital investments over the last eight years, which has had the impact of reducing road quality.
Tillamook County Commissioner Mark Labhart told the Committee that the roads in his county have been deemed the worst in the state, with 50 percent of them listed as either in poor or very poor condition. The county has budgeted $2.4 million for the road department this year, but needs $3.5 million to keep the roads in their current condition. "We would need $53 million to bring our roads up to good condition," Labhart said. Tillamook County is asking voters to approve a General Obligation Bond later this month that if approved, would provide $15 million for roads over a ten-year period.
Labhart said county roads are very important to the economy of Tillamook County. "The milk from the dairy cows is loaded onto a truck that goes on a county road to a state highway to the cheese factory. We need good roads for a good economy," Labhart said.
The county road picture in Eastern Oregon isn't much better. Harney County Judge Steve Grasty testified by telephone from Burns that his county road budget is being hammered by the increasing costs of materials. Baker County Commissioner Fred Warner, Jr., told the Committee that his road department is in the process of determining which of the currently paved county roads will have to be pounded to gravel in order to reduce the costs of maintenance. Lake County Commissioner Dan Shoun, testifying by telephone from Lakeview, briefed the House panel on the problems his road department faces with a vastly reduced work force and ever increasing demands, especially during harsh winter months. He also spoke to the need of well-maintained roads to reduce dust and dirt on several important crops produced in Lake County.
All three Eastern Oregon county officials urged state legislators to work to find solutions to managing federal forest lands in order to bring those forests back to health and to restore rural economies. The Western Oregon commissioners agreed that it will take a complete collaborative effort to make forests healthy and productive.
The number of county road personnel has decreased over the past twenty years. In Tillamook County for instance, there were 39 full time road department employees in 1993. Today there are 19. Statewide, county road personnel totaled more than 2000 in 1995. In 2010, there were about 1600 and the numbers continue to decrease according to Oshel. In addition to the reduction of road department personnel, the costs of maintaining county roads continue to increase. The cost of asphalt sealing oil has gone from $182 a ton in 2001 to $240 a ton in 2006 to $624 a ton in 2012. The cost of maintaining a paved road is about $30,000 per mile a year. The cost of maintaining a gravel road is about $5,000 per mile a year.
Mike McArthur, Executive Director of the Association of Oregon Counties thanked Rep. Bentz for holding Monday's informational hearing. "Oregon county roads are a vital link in the state's transportation system and a big piece of the economic infrastructure," McArthur said. "Today's hearing shows the need for a collaborative work group on road finance."
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