by CHRIS ROGERS
It may be $7.4 million, but it is nothing to write home about. Winona County’s 2020 budget for road and bridge projects will fund important maintenance and close out two big construction projects launched this year, but it won’t make dramatic improvements to the county’s worst roads.
Two of the three biggest road projects in next year’s budget are overlay projects in which contractors resurface roads that are in relatively good condition to begin with as part of a strategy to extend the pavement’s life and save money in the long term. County Road 33 between Altura and Utica would get a $1-million overlay. Southeast of St. Charles, County Road 35 and part of County Road 37 would get the same treatment, with a cost of $990,000.
“Those are ones where we anticipate people will look at those projects and say, ‘Why are you doing that road? That’s in good shape. We’ve got these other roads that are in much worse shape,’” Winona County Engineer Dave Kramer said. “And the reality is, we need to do an overlay on those roads.” If the county lets the roads continue to degrade to the point where the existing pavement needs to be ground up, the cost of those projects will increase exponentially, he explained. “Letting it deteriorate a few more years does not make sense from a long-term, life-cycle-cost perspective,” Kramer said.
“Unfortunately, that means there are some worse roads that won’t get anything done to them, but those are the tradeoffs if we’re going to spend the tax dollars effectively,” he stated.
In a similar vein, the county budgeted $175,000 next year for chip seal — a sort of touch-up treatment for pavement that is only a few years old that helps seal up cracks and fissures before they get too big. Both the overlays and the chip sealing are part of long-term strategies by the county highway department to minimize costs in future decades.
“From a political standpoint you get grief from the constituents that they want to see the worst first, so to speak,” County Board member Steve Jacob said. “But Dave Kramer, he understands how to get the best return for the citizenry in the long haul. Doing that chip seal, and doing these overlays, getting to them before they disintegrate — it’s sort of a stitch in time saves nine sort of thing.”
That kind of preventative maintenance is not the only work scheduled for next year, though. Among the most noteworthy projects are a $900,000 contract to resurface County Road 12 in Ridgeway, $1 million in funding to finish off a $3.4-million total reconstruction project on County Road 41 in the far northwest corner of the county, and $300,000 to close out the County Road 129 (Goodview Road) reconstruction.
Thanks to federal funding, the county will replace two bridges — one on County Road 30 and one on County Road 37 — next year. However, after hoped-for state funding fell through, county leaders had to postpone plans to replace three other bridges on County Road 7 in Pickwick, County Road 27 near Rollingstone, and County Road 5 near Nodine.
“I would say the one that’s the most concerning is the County [Road] 5 bridge,” Kramer said when asked about the condition of the unfunded bridges. Though the bridge is posted with a 16-ton load limit, Kramer said he is aware of people violating the limit. He added of the bridge’s condition, “It’s fairly alarming — the deterioration of it … We have it load-posted for the load that’s safe to go across it. And anything more than that, it’s not safe, frankly.”
Kramer said those projects had to be delayed because the amount of funding the Minnesota Legislature has appropriated to a state bridge-repair fund is not enough to cover a backlog of bridges in need across the state. “In recent years, the amount of the approvals by the legislature have not been enough to clear out the backlog,” he stated.
There is a chance the legislature could pass robust transportation infrastructure funding in the spring 2020 legislature, but to get decent bids, those three projects would still have to wait until 2021, Kramer said. “Hopefully the pieces come together for those to be done in future years … They’re needed and we’ve got the plans ready, but the funding piece isn’t there,” he added.
Jacob said he commiserates with state legislators who face pressure both to cut taxes and fund infrastructure. “I can see the position our state legislators are in. They have to defend the taxpayer as best they can,” he stated. At the same time, he added that the state is guilty of pushing off the costs and responsibility for road repair — and all manner of other issues — to local government. “Everyone is trying to push off the responsibility to someone else,” Jacob stated.
“There are roads I’m embarrassed that people have to deal with, but overall, we’re making progress,” Jacob said. “I remember some of those roads were totally disintegrating, and we weren’t even able to get them on the [schedule]. So I feel we’re making the best progress we’ve made in a long time,” he stated. That progress is thanks in part to the extra $2-million-plus the county brings in each year for road repairs from a local half-cent sales tax passed by the County Board in 2016. Although the sales tax was originally passed on a split vote, Jacob credited his Winona-based colleagues for supporting the sales tax since then. “There’s plenty of times we disagree on things, but I have to give credit when we’re working together, and this is the time we are,” he stated.
Since adopting that sales tax, the County Board has also kept local property tax funding for roads constant and avoided the temptation to use the new money to cut property taxes rather than using it to fund more road construction.
The County Board will not finalize the 2020 budget until December.
Kramer has yet to propose a revised schedule of road projects for 2021-2024. He said the Road and Bridge Committee — which includes Jacob and commissioner Marcia Ward — will likely review a draft plan in October.