For the first time in decades, Wasco County roads are in danger of falling into disrepair, a citizen committee reported to the Wasco County Commissioners Sept. 4, recommending several ways the commissioners might consider to restore money to its decimated roads budget.
The Wasco County Road Advisory Committee was convened in January to find ways to address the fiscal conditions in the road department resulting from the loss of federal payments, an announcement from the committee stated. Over the months since, the panel has heard comments from citizens throughout the county as it worked to prepare a report of findings and recommendations.
What they discovered was overwhelming support for maintaining good roads, with over half of the participants willing to support a new fee or tax for county roads. Funding mechanisms recommended to the county commission include a county vehicle registration fee, a traffic impact fee and a new taxing district.
“It has been a very educational process,” said Chuck Covert, chair of the panel. “The whole committee learned a lot about the Wasco County Road Department. It’s quite a shortfall they have due to timber receipt expiration — not an easy solution.”
Roads are a key part of the Wasco County economic infrastructure. Agriculture is the largest economic engine in the county, and well-maintained roads make it possible for farmers to get their products to market, and for other industries to do the same.
“Failure to maintain that asset will mean reduced safety and increased wear and tear on vehicles,” the report stated. “Bad roads will also impact commuters, tourists, agricultural traffic and commercial haulers, which will have a severe negative effect on the local economy.”
Until the timber industry declined in the 1990s in Wasco County largely as a result of limitations designed to protect the endangered Northern Spotted Owl, revenues from timber always helped maintain roads. In 2000, the federal “Safety Net” program began to make gradually declining payments to timber counties after the logging curtailment.
“In 2007, the program began to expire and the ‘Safety Net’ payments were greatly reduced,” the report stated. “The road department developed a plan to offset the declining revenue: Reductions in materials and capital expenditures, no additional funding to the emergency road reserve, and reductions in personnel which included the loss of seven full-time employees and two part-time employees.”
“It was a short-range plan that actually helped us get to 2013,” said Marty Matherly, Wasco County roadmaster, “but we’re slowly losing ground.”
The road department is responsible for maintaining almost 700 miles of county road throughout five maintenance districts; 400 miles of road are gravel and 300 miles are paved. The transportation system also includes more than 120 bridges, 1,000 culverts and 5,000 signs. Mainenance work includes chip sealing the paved roads, placing rock and blading the gravel roads, ditching, brush cutting, paint striping and snow removal.
The Pavement Condition Index (PCI) has been dropping on Wasco County roads, said Matherly and Covert. The index is an engineering technique involving a digital inspection of roadways.
“We do a certain percentage of each road every year,” Matherly said. “We get out and count distresses, cracks, potholes, distortion, raveling and other negative factors, collect them and enter them into the program, which does the work for us.”
On a scale of zero to 100, an index of 85 to 90 is considered “perfect,” Matherly said, while 80 to 85 is considered good. Right now, Wasco County road conditions have dropped from 85 to 80, but road crews have had to cut back on annual chip sealing and other maintenance from 30 to 40 miles per year when the department was fully funded to between 15 and 18 miles now.
That means road conditions will continue to decline.
“If we get down into the 50s or 60s, it’s going to cost more to bring roads up to the 85 to 90 level,” Matherly said. “If we catch them in the mid-70s, they’re going to be the least expensive to maintain.”
During the current budget year, the road department has been spending in the red, eating away at next year’s beginning fund balance to maintain the roads while the committee works on solutions, but the department is looking at a $1.9 million hole — almost half of their overall department budget — with the absence of the “Safety Net,” Matherly said.
The rest of the department’s budget comes from about $1.8 million in registration, license and gas tax fees collected by the state and about $250,000 in federal transportation grant pass-through funding. Actual timber receipts for the coming year are estimated at just $93,000.
The Road Advisory Committee surveyed more than 100 Wasco County residents, finding that 58 percent would strongly support new road revenue, while only 17 percent would not support new road revenue. In other findings:
• 72 percent rated maintenance of paved roads as very important,
• 68 percent said they would not support eliminating or reducing paved road maintenance,
• 56 percent said snow removal was very important,
• 47 percent strongly support and 43 percent somewhat support the idea of transferring certain county roads to the city.
The Road Advisory Committee’s months-long process included research, public meetings, building public awareness and receiving comments. From that process, the panel recommended several long-term funding sources they recommended the commission consider to fill the hole left by timber receipts:
• A $43 per year county vehicle registration fee (strong recommendation). Revenues would be shared between the county and the cities.
• A county transportation impact fee (strong recommendation) generated by road users, although how the fee would be collected and how much revenue it would generate requires further research.
• A county road district (moderate recommendation). A county rate of 90 cents per thousand of tax-assessed property valuation could be expected to raise $1.6 million per year. A rate of $1.07 per thousand could raise $1.9 million, allowing the county to restore the $225,000 capital improvement program fund, an addition county commissioners wanted to see, Covert said.
These options will be explored for possible voter consideration in May 2014.
“What would be the easy solution, I can’t help but say, is to put the forest back to work,” Covert said. “Start managing the forests, harvesting the timber and do it not like we used to but where we replenish the forests. It would relieve so much pressure on roads, schools and parks, and put so many people back to work.”
The committee also came up with strategies it did not recommend including: 1. Further reductions to materials, personnel and services, or deferring maintenance; 2. Combining with the City of The Dalles street department, where committee members felt some of the assumptions were not valid, since the departments often perform quite different functions; and 3. Privatize the road department, because audits of outsourcing at the state level showed savings were overstated.
In the short-term, the committee recommended the road department use short-term funding solutions including charging for certain permits, expansion of cooperation with other municipalities, and temporary use of the road reserve to balance the budget, which will be explored this winter.
Matherly worries about dipping into the road reserve, which is used to address repairs after catastrophic events such as the 1996 flood and the wildfires and their suppression, which can also cause road damage.
County commissioners asked committee representatives for more details on each of the long-term options.
“I think, universally, all the commission was really happy with the work the group did,” said Commissioner Scott Hege, praising the work they did to inform and collect information from the public. “I think what our intention was, basically, was to get this out to the public.”
“We’ve got a great road department,” said Commissioner Steve Kramer, who sat in on most of the committee meetings. “They have done everything they can to minimize the pain from the federal government’s lack of participation and they’ve got a great advisory committee that worked long and hard to put this together. We want to get the information out to the people so they can give us feedback.”
Public hearings are planned on the recommendations later this fall. Look for notice in a future Chronicle.