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Road worries: Towns struggle to keep up with rising prices

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Stacy Vogel
January 13, 2008

Some towns have considered letting paved roads go back to gravel.


The town of Fulton is considering a referendum to collect extra taxes for road maintenance.


The town of Milton borrowed $92,000 to pay for past roadwork and raised its tax levy 33 percent to pay it back.


The rising costs of road maintenance, combined with tax levy limits, have left towns with few options when it comes to taking care of their roads.


“Either you finance them, or you don’t, or you find some alternative road structure,” said Bryan Meyer, Milton town chairman.


Road maintenance costs have skyrocketed with the rising price of oil in the last five years. As a result, several towns have cut back on maintenance contracts with Rock County, either pursuing private bids or eliminating planned projects, said Ben Coopman, director of Rock County Public Works.


Road crews use oil and oil products for two important aspects of their work, Coopman said: as fuel for their equipment and in asphalt for paving.


The lowest bid for a ton of asphalt rose 70 percent between 2005 and 2007, Coopman said. The cost to repave one mile with 2 inches of asphalt rose 47 percent in that same time period—from $45,200 to $66,600.


Those increases tend to hit towns the hardest because road maintenance makes up more of their budgets. Road maintenance, including snow removal, makes up nearly 24 percent of expenditures for the town of Fulton and 21 percent for the town of Milton.


Towns, like all municipalities, are limited by the state levy limit law. In 2008, they won’t be able to raise taxes more than 2 percent.


If oil continues to rise, the increasing road maintenance costs alone could exceed those limits for some towns if they don’t cut back.


Meanwhile, state highway aids to municipalities haven’t kept up with inflation, said Richard Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association.


“As a result, I think we’re doing less improvements and less maintenance in many ways,” he said.


Fulton Town Chairman Evan Sayre estimates the town should repave three or 32 miles each year to keep its roads in good shape, but it only budgeted enough money to put an overlay on about two miles of road this year, he said.


The town of Milton didn’t budget any money to repave roads this year, though it did include money to seal some roads to prevent cracks, Meyer said.


Milton held a referendum in 2006 to raise taxes beyond the levy limit, in part to pay for road maintenance. It failed, but the town borrowed money in 2007 to pay a highway maintenance bill and raised the levy to pay it back. The town is also considering hiring private contractors to maintain roads instead of the county, Meyer said.


The town of Fulton is planning its own referendum. The town might hold a vote in the fall to raise taxes beyond the limit for road maintenance, Chairman Evan Sayre said. The town board hasn’t decided yet how much money to request, he said.


Several towns, including Spring Valley and Magnolia, have come to Coopman to discuss maintenance options, including changing some paved roads back to gravel, he said.


That’s not an option in Fulton, Sayre said.


“Most people don’t want a $300,000 or $400,000 house on a gravel road,” he said. “There’s a reason people have fought like hell to get them blacktopped over the last 50 years.”


Letting the roads fall into disrepair isn’t an option, either, he said.


Indeed, the longer towns wait to repair the roads, the more it will cost them in the long run, Stadelman said. But he doesn’t see many options for towns as long as they face state-imposed levy limits.


“It comes down to having adequate funding sources and the commitment to do it,” he said.


LIFE OF THE ROAD

No matter how well a road is built, it won’t last forever, said Richard Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association. He described the minimum amount of maintenance for a road in its lifetime:


10-15 years: At minimum, crews should fill cracks and seal the road to prevent future cracking.


15-20 years: Crews should put on a new overlay, either by grinding away part of the old surface and putting down the new layer or putting a thin layer on the pre-existing surface.


30-35 years: The road should be reconstructed by removing the base and putting down an entirely new road.



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