Winona County roads are getting worse. Repairs and repaving projects have not kept up with cracks and potholes, County Engineer Dave Kramer said. A new state-led study involving a van mounted with lasers confirmed that overall county roads are bumpier and more rutted than they were five years ago. In 2008, more than 97 percent of Winona County roads were rated "fair" or better by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) study. In 2012, that figure fell to 85 percent. The percentage of county roads that were "poor" or "very poor" rose from 2.4 percent to 14.1 percent during the same time period.
Photo by Chris Rogers
. County Road 15 west of Homer was rated “fair” by a recent Mn/DOT study. Fourteen percent of county roads were rated “poor” to “very poor.” CR 15 is slated for repair in 2015.
Last week, Kramer, county commissioners, and other staff piled into a van for a tour of the county's roads, bridges, and culverts. "So this is what 0.6 feels like," joked Zoning Administrator Eric Johnson, referring to the road's score on Mn/DOT's zero-to-five scale, as the van rumbled up County State Aid Highway (CSAH) 9 near Cedar Valley.
CSAH 9 in Homer Township and County Road (CR) 107 near Homer are the two worst roads in the county, according to Mn/DOT. Fortunately, CSAH 9 will be repaved this summer and CR 107 will be resurfaced next year. However, other "poor" roads will have longer to wait.
At the current funding levels it would take the county nearly 24 years to repave every mile of road in the county, Kramer told the County Board this spring. "The pavements aren't lasting that long," he said. In a recent interview, he explained, "The current funding isn't enough to maintain the pavements that we have."
Winona County is far from alone in that regard. Across the country, gas taxes have yielded fewer funds for state highway spending and county aid funding. Meanwhile, the cost of pavement has risen, resulting in both fewer dollars available for repairs and fewer repairs afforded per dollar.
Road funding is an issue, but the sky is not falling, said commissioners Steve Jacob and Jim Pomeroy. Taken as a whole, the county highway system still ranks just below "good," and many of the "poor" roads that are not scheduled for repair are lightly travelled, like the Homer Township dead-end CR 122, or located near better-maintained alternative routes, for example CR 101, which traces I-90 outside of Dakota.
"I didn't see the overall picture of our entire county highway system being dilapidated or extremely deficient," Jacob said, "but there is evidence that it has deteriorated from the standard that was set five years ago."
Some roads need attention, but overall, "I think we're doing reasonably well," Pomeroy said. The board is kept well informed of the state of county roads and addresses the county's needs year by year, he said. "Roads are an absolute priority for all members of the board and we will respond to that appropriately," Pomeroy commented.
Kramer acknowledged that the decline of county roads "is not a drastic thing that's happening very quickly. It's more of a creep."
"It is becoming apparent that greater maintenance efforts and greater spending will likely be required [in the future]. I think everyone understands that," said Pomeroy.
The issue does pose a challenge for elected leaders whose constituents often want both better roads and lower taxes. "We're in a Catch 22," acknowledged commissioner Wayne Valentine. "We need to find additional funding sources, and where that comes from I don't have an answer," he said. "It's going to have to be a collaborative thing, but the state is going to have to play a major role," Valentine continued. He said the county needs to call on the statewide counties' lobbying organization, the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC), to raise the issue and "push a little harder" in St. Paul.
The AMC has backed a transportation funding proposal dubbed "Move MN" that would include a 5 percent sales tax on wholesale fuel. Jacob was wary of the proposal at first, but has since come around. He said he was surprised to find that many constituents told him, I'm OK with slightly higher taxes if you can prove it's going to improve our roads." Jacob liked the idea of a user-fee system that would charge drivers per mile so that the drivers of fuel-efficient vehicles would contribute more to road repairs.
None of the commissioners have advocated for increasing local taxes to afford more spending on road repairs. If county roads get to a point where they are unacceptable, "then the county would have to step up to the plate," Valentine said, but "I don't know if we're really at that point yet."
"The system is broken at a higher point than the local level," Jacob commented. Both he and Pomeroy noted that legislative action may be on the horizon. In the meantime, Jacob said, "Overall, I didn't see a system that's falling apart that would not be able to serve the needs of the community in between now and the time when the new [state funding] formula is adopted."
Over the next five years, the county plans to spend $25.8 million on road and bridge improvements, with nearly $16 million coming from regular gas tax-funded state aid and $3 million in local levy dollars.
In 2014, the county plans to repave CSAH 26 west of Elba and CSAH 26/37 east of Elba, repave CSAH 9, and install guardrails on CSAH 25 near Rush Hill Creek.
The County Board postponed a high priority project slated for this summer, repaving CR 6, after bids came in well over budget this spring. That road, among the worst in the county, connects the Nisbit mine to Interstate 90 and would connect the numerous proposed frac sand mines in Saratoga Township. The county slated it for repaving next year along with CSAH 19, CSAH 15, CR 107, and CR 41. The CR 5 bridge, Lanes Valley Road Bridge, and Trout Creek Road, Horseshoe Road, CR 27, Willow Road, Fairwater Road, Conaughty Drive, and Nichols Spring bridges are also slated for repair in 2015.