Federal, state funds offer little aid for rural roads

Published 12:56 pm Monday, February 21, 2011

By Leesha Faulkner
The Selma Times-Journal

When most people hit a pothole in a county road, they blame the county for acting slowly to fix such problems.

More often than not, county road supervisors have watched that pothole grow along with others on miles of paved and unpaved roads in the county, meeting to prioritize those areas hardest to navigate while attempting to pave out others.

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But what most people do not see are the hard numbers state and local road supervisors and engineers must deal with when prioritizing resurfacing, repair or paving.

Add to the cost of the project, maintaining road crews, equipment and the cost of fuel.

In preparation for the construction season, Dallas County this week approved two county road projects. County Road 45 has what county engineer George “Coosa” Jones calls “failed areas,” from Ala. Hwy. 22 to U.S. 80 or about four miles. In plainer terms that means the shoulders on the road are bad and the surface needs repaving.

Jones believes last summer’s dry weather caused the roadbed underneath the asphalt to become unstable, causing the problems.

The cost of resurfacing the road and building up those shoulders should cost about $300,000 a mile or $1.2 million.

“We probably won’t pay that much,” said Dallas County Probate Judge Kim Ballard, “but it is about $300,000 a mile.”

In the same meeting about county roads, Jones also asked the county to sell four motor graders for $510,000, so the road department can lease/purchase another four. Equipment must be kept up-to-date and running if the roads are to be prepared.

While it appears the county pays out millions for little results, Dallas County has improved the quality of its roads and has fewer dirt roads than some surrounding counties.

“We haven’t had to turn some paved roads back into dirt roads like other counties,” Ballard said.

Money to pay for road paving, resurfacing and upkeep come from various funds. For example, federal dollars will pay for a majority of the work on County Road 45 “with a little local money,” Jones said.

Counties in Alabama are just a smaller version of what happens statewide, where some of the money trickles down for repairing those county road potholes and shoulders.

But there’s never enough for all the work.

Tony Harris, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Transportation, explained the complexity of highway and road funding for the 90,000 miles of roadway in the state.

At the top of the heap are the 11,000 miles the state maintains. “Those 11,000 miles carry 80 percent of all the traffic in the state,” Harris said.

Beyond the state, money trickles down to counties, which are responsible for all the rural roads outside incorporated areas.

Congress appropriates those federal dollars that are supposed to flow into the states in a six-year funding cycle, Harris said.

Currently, the states are working under the Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA-LU), which expired Sept. 30, 2009.

“We’ve been under a series of extension of that level funding,” Harris said.

In December, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives approved a bill, which included the extension of SAFETEA-LU through March.  This was the sixth extension of the bill since it expired.

In December, Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla) said one of the priorities of the committee would be to draft a new, long-term authorization bill.

If Congress fails to enact a reauthorization bill to extend that funding, the flow of highway funds would stop.

The state also receives its share of the federal gas tax, which funds the national Highway Trust Fund. This was set up in 1956 through the Highway Revenue Act to ensure the maintenance of the nation’s interstate highway system. Monday in the fund is raised through a federal fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel and other excise taxes.

These two sources of federal funding produce about $550 million for Alabama, according to Harris.

Each of the 67 counties in Alabama receives a share of these dollars. Generally, the amount would be $300,000 per county, but Harris said the state doled out $553,000 per county last year off the top.

Federal dollars are already earmarked for interstate maintenance, bridge replacement and the national highway system.

“ALDOT has discretionary authority over less than half of the federal money,” Harris said.

Then, there is state money.

The state generates its road money from a state gas tax, which it splits with the counties 55:45 percent, using a complicated formula few can explain.

This state allocation is used to maintain the existing 11,000 miles of state road; bridge inspections and maintenance.

“Maintenance is a big responsibility,” Harris said.

There are some times the state needs what is termed “extra capacity,” which means turning two-lane highways into four lanes to handle the amount of increased traffic. This also is covered in the funding, Harris explained.

Still, the four lanes take years to build and bone-jarring potholes still exist on some state-maintained roads. A project seems to pop up on various interstate highways across the state.

Harris said district engineers and state engineers meet frequently to discuss projects and where to place resources, depending on a variety of criteria.

“It’s a daily management process,” he said.

And so is no different from those engineers in 57 counties across the state, trying to juggle stretched cash resources with miles and miles of road needing maintenance or resurfacing.

Harris realizes the burden on the counties.

“Counties, on a mile-for-mile basis, probably are more strapped than we are,” he said. “They have more needs than funds.”