At a meeting on Wednesday, March 30, the Ravalli County Commissioners got an earful in response to the Road and Bridge Department’s proposal to grind up numerous roads during the coming season. According to Commissioner Greg Chilcott, a milling machine for rent has been located in Idaho that is capable of un-paving the selected sections of road in the county. According to Road and Bridge Department Supervisor John Horat, the estimated cost of the milling operation, about $20,000 plus staff time, is within the current operating budget for FY 2021/2022. Horat said that the idea of un-paving roads was not unique to Ravalli County. He said counties nationwide are considering it for reasons of safety and economics. After milling the roads, gravel will be hauled in to supplement existing materials if necessary. Typically, for the first year, the Commissioners have authorized dust abatement materials for the unpaved roads at county expense. If resources become available in the future, some of the roads could be proposed for paving.
Chilcott explained the proposal as a necessary response to the decline in federal funding for the road department as Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) from the National Forest declined and was eventually replaced by Secure Rural Schools (SRS) funding which then itself declined from about $1.5 million in 2009 to $450,000 in 2022.
According to Commissioner Jeff Burrows, the current funding situation is a combination of this diminished funding and the fact that when money was flush, too much was spent on new road construction and not enough reserved for future operation and maintenance. As a result, he said, the county now has more paved roads than it can maintain. He said the current 500 miles of paved road in the system, given the average lifespan of the pavement at 20 years, requires a re-pavement of about 15 miles of decrepit road a year. The current budget allows for about 5 to 7 miles per year at best.
The current Road Levy, the amount of money dedicated to the Road and Bridge Department from local property taxes, does not produce the $4 million budget that it would be required to conduct a proper maintenance and replacement schedule. The current Road Levy brings in about $1.8 million. The bulk of property taxes (69%), Burrows said, goes to the schools while local government gets only about 20%. Of that 20% the Road and Bridge Department gets only 3.52%. Burrows said that it was plain that the amount of pavement in the system has to be reduced or the funding has to be increased. As a result, they asked the Road Department to assess the paved roadways and identify some potential sections of road for un-paving based on average daily trips and other factors.
That analysis and prioritization yielded a list of roads and sections of roads that included Carlton Drive, N. Barbara Drive, Helen Court, Teepee Drive, Wickiup Drive, Meadow Vista, Lower Woodchuck Road, Klements
Lane, Upper Burnt Fork School Road, Joshua Way, Meadowlark Lane and Camas Creek Road.
The commissioners received at least 37 written comments from the public concerning the proposal, the bulk of them (25) coming from residents along Klements Lane. At the meeting, people spoke mostly about the negative impacts that returning pavement to gravel would have on their lives, from creating health issues due to dust to environmental issues related to wetlands. They also questioned the analysis and wanted more information about the costs of the gravel road maintenance and the impacts of magnesium chloride that is used to reduce the dust. Many complained about the potential reduction in the value of their homes and access for some health-related services.
David Blackwell said he spoke for about 29 homes and they were very concerned about the potential economic impacts and decrease in property values as well as the potential health impacts on the families along the road. He said the homes were on small one-third acre lots and many of the houses were within 50 feet of the road.
“These are middle class working families that have kids who ride bicycles,” he said. He said it was a small, congested group of homes that would be unduly impacted by the proposal. Like many others, he said that he had short notice of the proposal and hoped the commissioners could give them more time to get more information about the analysis and perhaps come up with some other options. He said it looks like a choice between two bad options, either living with a road full of potholes or living with a dusty gravel road. “We should at least have time to give you some input on what kind of bad road we would really like to have,” he said.
Ron Porter, who owns property along Camas Creek Road, said, “It’s all about money.” He described how 10 residents along a frontage road that was in very bad condition got together and put in $100 each to fund some improvements.
Burrows said that private contributions to get some county improvements to a road done in a timely manner rather than on some 20-year schedule have been done in the past.
“Private donations work,” said Burrows and were something worth considering. He said holding this meeting was a good way to start discussions and look for some solutions.
The commissioners adjourned the meeting without taking any action.