By Fred Woods
In early 2010 the Lee County Commission adopted a policy of not paving any more of the county’s dirt roads. The rationale for this policy was, and remains, that the county lacked the resources to maintain the existing paved roads in the county, so there was no sense in adding paved roads, which would make an already bad situation worse.
Prior to the suspension of the Dirt Road Paving Program, the county had paved approximately 12 miles of dirt roads each year, with the miles allocated among the county’s five commission districts in the proportion that each district had of the county’s total mileage of dirt roads. Commissioners were responsible for nominating the roads to be paved within their districts.
Since 2010 this policy change has shifted more than $2.3 million toward the county’s paved road resurfacing program. In spite of the funding shift, the condition of Lee roads has continued to worsen.
Here’s why: a paved road is designed to last 15-20 years before needing to be replaced/resurfaced. With Lee County’s current resources, the county can resurface roads only every 53 years.
To put the county’s resurfacing program on a 20-year cycle would require almost double the county’s currently available $2.6 million annually to resurface roads. Since the only way to get the available funds is to raise taxes (either ad valorem or sales) and no politician who has any thought of re-election would suggest such a thing, the no-new-paving policy seems to make sense – unless you live on a dirt road, especially one where residents have been promised paving before the no-paving policy was adopted.
Oh – and it only seems to make sense if no-paving applies equally to all.
Imagine the surprise to those who are familiar with the no-paving policy when Lee Road 352, a narrow quarter-mile stretch of road near Halawakee Creek in District 4, was suddenly (and without prior County Commission discussion) paved in mid-November 2014. Compounding the surprise was the fact that the road width was narrower than County Highway Department standards, so another policy had to be violated. The road only permitted pavement 14 feet wide, too narrow for two cars to pass. This was remedied by making the road one-way and posting a 25 miles per hour speed limit.
Commissioner Robert Ham and County Engineer Justin Hardee explained the apparent violation of commission policy (actually several policies) thusly:
In August 2012 Ham brought before the commission his concern that one of the residents of LR 352 suffered from COPD (a lung disease causing breathing problems). Dust caused by traffic on the unpaved road exacerbated his breathing problem. In discussions with county highway staff, Ham had learned of a substance called Landlock, which was supposed to suppress dust for up to six months per application. After some discussion Ham made a motion, approved unanimously by the commission, to authorize the highway department to purchase and apply enough of the substance for two applications for dust control on LR 352. Cost to the county about $8,000 for purchase and the two applications.
In April 2014 Ham told the commission that the two Landlock applications had been made but neither had lasted more than six months. Ham then asked commission approval for a double coat of tar and gravel as the most cost-effective means to control the dust on LR 352. Ham estimated the cost at about $8,000 dollars. Commissioner Johnny Lawrence, in seconding the motion, asked how much paving the road would cost and was told $20-25,000. Hardee requested the speed limit be 25 miles per hour and the road be made one-way. The motion carried, 4-0, with Commissioner Gary Long being absent.
Subsequently East Alabama Paving was awarded the contract for the tar and gravel but for various reasons was unable to apply the tar and gravel. In early November, an EAP representative contacted Ham and Hardee, saying that EAP was willing to pave the road, since their paving equipment was already nearby, for the same price they had agreed upon for the tar and gravel.
Ham and Hardee said they readily agreed since they thought this represented a good deal for the county ($8-10,000, the tar and gravel estimate, for an asphalt road which would otherwise cost the county $20-25,000). Many would agree until thinking the matter through. Lee County is a public entity, and all citizens are supposed to be treated alike. What is county road policy in District 4 should be the same as county road policy in District 5, and exceptions to policy in the case of one dirt road should apply to all dirt roads.
Not only was the no-new-paving policy violated, but also the policies on minimum right-of way and minimum pavement width. The commission can vote exceptions to any of their policies, but individual commissioners and county employees cannot – or should not.
If Ham and Hardee had come back to the commission and said, “We’ve got what we think is a good deal,” chances are the commission would have approved, and no one would have any good reason to complain, since it would have been done properly. The way it was actually handled, people whose roads have been on paving lists prior to the current no-paving policy and were led to believe that exceptions could not be made have every reason to believe that something isn’t right about LR 352.
The word has gotten around, and the next county commission meeting should be an interesting one.