by Terry Burnes

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March 20, 2013
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How bad are Douglas County's roads?

The biggest question facing Douglas County this year is what we as a community are going to do about road maintenance. The county seems determined to find a solution, as it should be. Let’s consider four questions.

Are our roads really that bad?

A Public Works department report shows the situation we face. Roads decline on a modified S-curve.

When new, roads need little but routine maintenance. But if neglected, decline sets in until roads get beyond repair. The key to low costs is to keep roads in the first part of that curve as long as possible through timely and effective maintenance.

Our roads are at a critical juncture, shown by the bold vertical arrow in the graph. Our average Pavement Condition Index is 58, or fair. If something isn’t done soon our roads will slip rapidly down the curve to the point where they are beyond repair and can only be maintained through costly reconstruction. Renovation that would cost $1 today will cost $5 in just a few years.

We spend only about $450,000 on this function today. Public Works says the backlog of road maintenance and repair is $30 million and that we need an additional $4 million per year just to keep things as they are.

If you doubt the seriousness of the situation, I suggest you contact Public Works and ask for more information. I think you’ll find they’ve done their homework.

I’d say to do a proper job of this, we need to come up with at least another $5 million per year for road maintenance and repair. That would stop the bleeding and substantially reduce the backlog over, say, the next 20 years. The big question is, where will that money come from?

Can’t we find the money we need in the existing county budget?

We have a chance over the next few weeks to answer that question. The county commission is scheduled to consider Public Works’ report on April 4 and will soon begin budget hearings.

We have three options. We can accept continued deterioration of our roads. We can divert money from other functions to road maintenance. Or we can assess new taxes to fund a greater level of road maintenance.

I don’t think the first option is viable because it will just mean increased costs later. That leaves diverting funds from other programs or adding taxes.

The upcoming budget hearings present an opportunity for those who oppose new taxes to identify the efficiencies they favor or the programs they’d reduce to transfer money to our roads.

It’s not enough simply to say you oppose taxes or that the county has enough money already or that efficiencies can be made, and then leave the tough decisions to others. If you want good roads but oppose taxes to pay for them, then you need to study the budget and come up with specific proposals for greater efficiency or for diverting money from other functions.

Let me put things in rough perspective.

The budget is divided into many funds. For the most part money for roads might be found in only a few of those, such as the general fund. My estimate is that together those potential sources amount to no more than $50 million. So if we need to “find” $5 million that will mean about a 10 percent reduction in everything else.

And this isn’t just a one-time problem. We need to do this year after year. And we need to bear in mind that after five years of recession here, the county has already made a lot of cuts. All in all, easier said than done.

If we can’t find the money elsewhere, then what?

If the money we need can’t be found elsewhere then new taxes dedicated to road repair are the only option. Public Works has identified several areas where Douglas County has yet to take full advantage of the taxing authority it has under state law. It would take almost all them to address our road maintenance problem.

Let’s put that into perspective too. The $5 million we need annually for road repair amounts to about $100 per person in Douglas County, or about $250 per household.

AAA’s 2012 “Your Driving Costs” study says that the cost of driving the average sedan is $8,946 per year, the average SUV is $11,360 per year. Most households have more than one vehicle.

So another $250 to have decent roads is about 2.5 percent of the cost of operating just one of them. Not much. And if that’s too much, maybe you should consider a smaller vehicle. Operating a small sedan is only $6,735 per year.

How do we assure new taxes would be spent on road maintenance?

Simple. When adopting any new road maintenance taxes, the county should include ordinance language that limits use of those funds to maintenance, repair and improvement of existing roads only. This would reassure skeptical taxpayers that their money will be used wisely.

Folks, we need to deal with this problem. We can debate how we got here. I’m sure mistakes were made. But we are where we are and the county is now trying to solve this problem. If we can’t figure out a solution to something as basic as roads we’ll actually have a bigger problem: failed governance.

If you feel we don’t have a road problem then I urge you to study the Public Works report and tell us why. If you oppose taxes for road repair then please get specific about where you’d find the money instead.

But if we can’t solve the problem that way then we need to accept that good roads aren’t free and step up to the plate and pay what it costs to have the roads we need to prosper as a community.

Terry Burnes is a Gardnerville resident and retired Bay Area planner.

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The Record Courier Updated Mar 20, 2013 08:57AM Published Mar 20, 2013 08:48AM Copyright 2013 The Record Courier. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.