Elmore County will get an infusion of $1.22 million each year due to Alabama’s recently passed gas tax increase but chief engineer Richie Beyer said residents should not expect to see new projects sprouting across the landscape.
What they will see are older bridges being made safe, capacity being added to existing thoroughfares in the growing county and dirt roads getting paved.
“I don’t think we’ll see ribbon cuttings on mega projects,” Beyer said. “But we want to get asphalt and concrete on the road as soon as possible. They’ll see additional roads being resurfaced. They’ll start to see bridge projects that have been lingering. A byproduct of keeping roads proactively maintained is people will see better response times from crews on ditches and rights of way and less time spent patching roads.”
Although Beyer doesn’t believe in repairing the worst roads first, he said the No. 1 priority is preserving paved roads, followed by buttressing bridges and then upgrading unpaved roads.
“If you took $1.2 million and addressed 30 miles and you were being more proactive and preserving good roads or you were fixing the worst five miles you’ve got, over time the investment in the 30 miles will pay off,” he said.
Many unpaved roads in the county are through routes and need improvement, according to Beyer.
“If they’re completed they could relieve congestion,” Beyer said. “There are five or six strategic ones that if paved would change traffic patterns and we’re hoping some of this (gas tax money) will allow us to expedite those. If we can invest more in the preventive side and seal those up, our crews will be able to get those roads ready.”
As is the case with many of Alabama’s 67 counties, Elmore County still won’t have enough money to keep its roads and bridges in good shape once the Rebuild Alabama program reaches full implementation in 2022 with a gas tax increase of 10 cents per gallon. The initial 6-cent increase per gallon takes effect Sept. 1.
According to the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, Elmore County needs $10.48 million per year just to maintain roads on a 15-year cycle and replace bridges on a 50-year cycle. Its budget is $4.965 million annually and the extra $1.22 million will bring that to $6.185 million a year — still nearly $4.3 million short of the needs. Beyer said 41 percent of the budget in fiscal year 2017 went to salaries and benefits, 38 percent to materials and operations and 21 percent to equipment and facilities.
The county is responsible for 1,000 miles of roads, 182 of which are unpaved. It has 123 bridges, 20 of which are at least 50 years old, according to the ACCA.
“The Elmore County Commission has a backlog of maintenance projects that will consume much of the Rebuild Alabama funding,” Beyer said.
But Beyer and county commission chairman Troy Stubbs aren’t complaining about the first gas tax increase since 1992.
“Rebuild Alabama does help,” Stubbs said. “It doesn’t give us everything we need but it’s a great start. I think we are ahead of the game as far as our ability to stretch the taxpayers’ dollars. (Improving unpaved roads and adding capacity) will help us grow in the proper way and will affect quality of life.”
Beyer hopes his department can stretch the new funds well enough — including using some of it for matching grants — to maintain 15 to 20 miles of roads a year.
“We’re very happy to have the new revenue,” he said. “We can leverage it and make it go as far as possible. We can use techniques to stretch the life of the pavement. But no one received the resources they fully need. After 27 years of delay, the true need is just too much for anyone to realistically expect to be fixed with one action.”
Beyer said he’d give Elmore County’s infrastructure a grade of C.
“The paved road side is a little better off,” he said. “We have a growing list of bridges — 20 are 50 years old or older and that’s 1/5th of our network. If we are not proactive now, that ‘C’ level could go down quickly.”
Beyer said 164 miles of roads and streets in the county grade below a 79.
“That means you’re getting more into the rehabilitation of the roadway, which is more expensive,” he said. “People start having an uncomfortable ride on that kind of road. Their front ends get knocked out due to potholes. With another 213 miles needing some form of immediate attention and four bridges in need of major rehab or replacement now, the Rebuild Alabama allocation the county will begin receiving will be put right to work.”
Beyer and the county commission must balance repairing roads and bridges with making them capable of handling population that grew an estimated 3 percent from 2010 to 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. An estimated 82,000 people live in Elmore County.
“We’re having to add capacity,” Beyer said. “People are leaving the municipal areas and coming to the county for more space and expect that city service.”
Beyer said 43,000 cars daily traverse the intersection of U.S. Highway 231 at Main Street in Wetumpka and there are some noteworthy roads that need to be widened to four lanes, including Redland Road (11,000 vehicles a day); Deatsville Highway and Coosada Parkway (6,000 a day each); and Rifle Range, Firetower and Dozier roads (5,000 a day each).
“There are very few areas in the county that aren’t seeing growth,” Beyer said. “There’s a lot of (housing) inventory left over from the 2009 crash and now that’s being gobbled up.”
Beyer said many retirees are moving to Lake Martin and Stubbs said the west side of the county, Redland and Holtville are blossoming with young families.
“We have seen tremendous growth in the last 10 to 15 years and we anticipate continuing to see it,” Stubbs said.
Beyer admits he gets frustrated when he hears critics say the gas tax increase is unnecessary and his department has plenty of money to fix all its roads and bridges, especially since Elmore County’s median income from 2013-17 was $54,981, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Plenty is relative,” Beyer said. “Most every county in the state funds their roads and bridges with the gas tax and the last time it was raised was 1992. Imagine if you were in the workforce in 1992 and your salary today was the same as it was in 1992. Then with inflation, all the things you’re buying get more expensive. Now you’re trying to use that same revenue to buy things that are 50 or 60 percent more. Most people, unless you do road work every day, don’t understand how expensive it is. They pay all their taxes and they think it all goes to roads and bridges.”
The county also determines what gets fixed based on objective criteria instead of commissioners arbitrarily making those decisions as they did in the past.
“It used to be county commissioners had their districts and their own money and they’d decide what needed to be paved,” Stubbs said.
However, the Rebuild Alabama Act gives counties and municipalities more purchasing power through combining resources and easing restrictions.
“We were getting $533,000 from the federal government and now we’re going to exchange that for $400,000 from the state but there are fewer strings with the $400,000,” Beyer said.
Elmore County and its cities can also apply for part of up to $50 million annually provided by ATRIP II to pay for projects of local interest on state-maintained highways.
There is also a $10 million annual grant program for roads and bridges the county and its municipalities can utilize.
“We’ve talked to our mayors about joint projects with the county,” Beyer said. “We’ve talked to them about their needs and what will help us and we could pool resources.”