Rocky year

Tuesday, October 23, 2007
A tractor sat idle in the rain Monday along County Road 316 near Jackson. County Road 316 has been widened but not yet paved using the chip-and-seal method. This the case with several county roads that might remain in their current condition due to lower temperatures and more rain. (Kit Doyle)

As the first construction season for the accelerated Cape Girardeau County road paving program draws to a close, a look back reveals a year of big promises, some successes and some false starts.

Overall, the grade could probably be best described as incomplete.

"There have been some major successes and a few disappointments," said Ken Evans, vice chairman of the County Road and Bridge Advisory Board, formed after intense feelings of public distrust of the county surfaced during the campaign for the new tax.

The biggest disappointment, Evans said, is that the board's proposal for a test of chip-and-seal surfacing drew no bids from contractors. At the board's urging, the county intended to put the oil-and-rock surfacing down on 11 miles of road as a test of the long-term effectiveness of the paving method.

"We were trying to get the biggest bang for the buck," Evans said. "That to me is a major source of disappointment."

Voters approved a half-cent sales tax in August 2006. The tax was designed to pay for county roads and an expanded sheriff's department. Part of the money replaced property taxes for county roads and the Cape Special Road District. The remainder was split between paving and law enforcement.

The tax took effect Jan. 1. Since the county received the first check in February, the tax has raised $3.9 million. Most of the money -- about $2.5 million -- has been banked to replace the lost property tax revenue. That has left a little less than $700,000 for roads.

The amount available for roads should increase dramatically next year when the county reaps the rewards of the Christmas shopping season as tax receipts for those sales arrive in January and February.

The advisory board worked through last fall and winter and into the spring evaluating past road building practices and policies, developing recommendations for change and offering a blueprint for road-building priorities. They found that the county often violated its policies regarding easement requirements, had a poor system of tracking which roads were first in line for work and allowed landowners to put up small sums of money to buy their road to the front of the list.

But after that initial work, delays by the county commission in seeking bids for a test of chip-and-seal paving resulted in no takers for the work, and 11 miles of road slated for a hard surface will not be completed this year.

But even when the bids were being advertised, not all the roads were ready for a hard surface. Nip Kelley Construction, contractor on two roads, had not completed work on 1.25 miles of County Road 607 and crews have been having difficulty finishing as the weather has turned wet.

Of six miles of roads contracted for asphalt paving work this year, 5.2 miles has been completed.

Scott Bechtold, county highway administrator, said he expects that 10 miles of roads will be advertised for bids for hard surfacing early in 2008.

The county is advertising now for a contractor to prepare about 10 miles on eight more roads, and county road crews expect to prepare an additional five miles, Bechtold said.

"We really hope they can be hard surfaced in late summer," he said. "It will be contingent on adequate funding and that will be quite a bit of work."

That puts the total for possible hard surfacing at up to 25 miles during 2008. If the full six miles under contract is paved this year, it will be the biggest year ever for paving on county roads, Bechtold said.

The chairman of the road board, Larry Payne, declined a chance to offer his opinion of this year's results, other than to comment on the board's work. "The advisory board has done things that needed to be done to get some consistency and to sort out some of the issues that are out there," Payne said.

As for the effort to actually build the roads, Payne said he would offer an opinion if he is before the county commission and is asked for an evaluation.

Commissioners themselves have mixed views on the results. For Associate Commissioner Larry Bock, who oversees the county road department, the results are all good. "It is going great," he said. "The sales tax money is coming in, we are getting some plans made, we are getting some more roads than normal paved, and it is just good all the way around."

Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones is out of town and unavailable for comment. But Associate Commissioner Jay Purcell said he sees room for improvement. "Overall, things could have been done better, there is no question. But if you look at where we were a year or two ago, we have made some big advancements in gaining the confidence of the citizenry."

If the paving plans being set for the coming year are realized, Purcell said, this year's difficulties will be forgotten. And the process for future paving is in place to build confidence, he said. "It is a clean, fair process not tainted by any kind of politics."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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