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Reader urges plan for county roads

Published: 9:15 PM, 09/28/2012 Last updated: 9:30 PM, 09/28/2012

Source: The Newport Plain Talk

Dear Editor,


I am writing regarding an important issue in Cocke County-the county roadways. In 2011, the county roadways were the 2nd largest budget item in the Cocke County Budget (excludes School Department). Good roads are vital to the county's economy and to each resident's personal finances and safety-for example we need to get to work and to the market, and school buses need to deliver our children to schools safely over these roads.

First and foremost I would like to point out that the Cocke County Highway Department's (HD) men and women, led by Superintendent Kenneth Ford, are doing a truly terrific job and dealing with shrinking funding from the Cocke County Legislative Body (CLB). They are heroes, but they are losing the battle.

Let me make one financial point about the asset value of Cocke County roadways. There is about 733 miles of gravel, tar & chip (aka shot & chip), and paved asphalt roadways in Cocke County. Using only the 371 miles of paved asphalt roadways and assessing them at $200 thousand per mile (total cost of ownership) results in a total value of over $74 million. According to the 2011 Cocke County Annual Financial Report that's 16 times greater than the HD budget and about three times greater than the Cocke County Budget (excludes School Department).

The Cocke County Highway Commission (CHC) may be acting democratically and courageously regarding guidance, oversight, and support for the HD and the CLB maybe acting democratically in its funding for the HD. Yet the reality is a year after year loss of roadway value-that's a permanent loss of part of the $74 million number above-and crumbling and patched-up roadways throughout the county, particularly for the districts with large roadway networks.

The problem is that the County Legislative Body provides too little funds for the construction, maintenance, and operations necessary to maintain effective, safe roadways in Cocke County. A compounding matter is that the County Highway Commission, County Mayor's Office, and Highway Department do not have a multi-year plan that specifically expresses the needed projects and facilities, including equipment, required to maintain effective, safe roadways. Consequently no one-not the CLB nor the county residents nor state officials-knows the minimum funding needs or priorities for effective, safe roadways in Cocke County. Even worse Cocke County residents do not have visibility into how today's too-little-funds are utilized to best delay loss of significant roadway value and best serve county residents. The CLB is informed; it gets a budget, with details provided by the HD and County Mayor's Office (MO) each year. The CLB does not, however, see a multi-year plan that shows current and future needs and tracks whether the upkeep, safety, and value of Cocke County roadways are being adequately maintained.

The county needs a Cocke County Highway Plan (CCHP) otherwise the CLB can just continue to kick the can down the road one more year without accepting any accountability for the ticking time bomb they have created. Eventually safety, road conditions, or legal action(s) will force a future CLB to undertake unpleasant, large expenditures to re-establish safe, effective roadways in the county.

Nothing prevents the CLB from continuing with "business as usual." Clank! Clink! Clank! goes the can down the road! It is democratic, but is it fair? As Cocke County does in the case of schools and public safety they fund roadways county-wide---or do they? In the past 10 years the CLB has provided paving funds for approximately 68 miles of roadway. The CHC in general divides this evenly among the 7 county districts. Consequently, District 6, which has only 11.2 miles of paved roads, is a winner since about 88% of its paved roadways got repaved. District 3, which has 87.2 miles of paved roads, is the greatest looser since only 11% of its paved roadways got repaved. In the past 10 years, 5 of the 7 county districts got 18% or less of their paved surface repaved. This just gets the time bomb ticking since 10 years from now if things don't change, then District 6 will be completely repaved plus have 76% of its surfaces repaved twice, that's right twice, and District 3 will have had only a tiny 22% repaved once. That leaves 78% of District 3's paved roadways 30 or more years old. In 10 years 5 of the 7 Cocke County districts will have between 64% and 78% of their paved roadways 30 or more years old. In the past 10 years asphalt cost more than doubled and CLB funding for paving dropped by 38% consequently last year the HD paved 3 miles county- wide-that's 7 football field lengths per district. Do you hear that time bomb ticking now?

To add to this insult if you are one of the county residents living along any the 363 miles of gravel or tar & chip roadways in the county, specifically Districts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, get ready to experience, if you aren't already experiencing it, washed out roadway surfaces and shoulders, poor drainage, and an endless mine field of pot holes big enough to throw a tractor tire into. This will happen because the HD is being asked to cut, cut, and cut more costs out of operations-less gravel, tar & chip oil, hot patch, salt, ditching, guard rails, people-leaving the HD with no alternative but to concentrate their efforts and time more and more on keeping the major county roadways patched-up and re-patching the patches. Tar & chip and gravel roadways will be a lower priority-no money and no time results in less. Asphalt paving may suffer too as districts try to save their tar & chip roads by using paving money to buy tar & chip oil. If you would like to see "patched-up" first- hand, then drive up Big Creek Road from Hartford to Grassy Fork. Tick Tock! Tick Tock! Now we really have a ticking time bomb!

A 5-year plan, with 1-years' worth of detail, would put squarely into the CLB's and county resident's view the operational plan for at least tar & chip and paved roadways, both vital roads in the county's transportation network. How do we get the needed highway plan; what are the steps?

1) The County Mayor's Office, Highway Department, and County Highway Commission sponsor a public "town hall meeting" where a) Cocke County residents are given the opportunity to talk about road conditions in their area, b) the Highway Department can summarize the county's operations approach for paved, tar & chip, and gravel roads, and c) CHC members can discuss their current concerns and priorities for each district.

2) The MO, HD and CHC meet with the CLB to establish fiscal guidelines and needs criterion for a county-wide plan for operations, maintenance, and construction of roadways in Cocke County based on needs for all the county roadways-paved, tar & chip, and gravel. For example a goal for new paved miles each year, goal for stabilizing maintenance for existing roadways in the next 5 years, goal for percentage tar & chip redo each year, goal for percentage gravel to tar & chip each year, and generalized discussion of priorities, just to name a few.

3) The MO, HD, and CHC prepare a county-wide 5-year plan based upon needs---not imposed fiscal constraints. The plan should include whatever is deemed necessary or pertinent, but as a minimum it needs to include: general county wide discussion of objectives; general discussion of priorities and needs for each district; by district and by road a paving and tar & chip proposal; a county-wide inventory and assessment of all roadway conditions/value including the condition of roadway surface, surface water drainage, shoulders, ditching, and other structures such as engineering tiles or bridges; discussion by district of gravel roadway maintenance; general discussion of related activities needed to maintain roadways operational such as mowing or patching; highlights of the HD's needs in facilities, equipment, and gravel; an estimate of the discretion needed by the HD to respond to emergencies and current events regarding safety and maintainability of the roadways; summary of HD's approved budget, and initial estimate of proposed costs with modest details. Finally the plan should have a section that discusses the challenges and issues facing the HD in operations and maintenance, such as price of materials, price of paving, rock crushing operations, previous winter weather damage, effects of heavily loaded trucks from logging or construction, new roadways accepted into the county, or seasonal nature of some operations, just to name a few.

4) The County Road Commission approves the CCHP and certifies that it represents the "best effort" minimum needs for maintaining effective, safe roadways.

5) The CCHP along with an appropriate budget, prepared by the HD, which includes funds for the plan, is presented to the CLB. The CLB can fund the HD's budget and endorse the CCHP, or the CLB can reject them and give other guidance on budget, priorities, and roadway operations and maintenance.

6) The HD and CHC, following CLB action on a final county budget, prepare, if necessary, a modified CCHP that fits the CLB's budget and guidance. This final CCHP needs to include statements on the CLB's guidance and a new section that lists in detail the changes to the original needs-based plan. Within one-month following CLB approval of a county budget the CHC approves, if necessary, the modified CCHP. The MO, HD, and CHC jointly publish the final CCHP on the internet ( web site) and on request provide it via email (.pdf attachment).

7) Each fiscal-year quarter the HD and CHC provides the CLB with a one-page progress report by district on the status of CCHP projects, spending, and challenges.

8) Repeat the above cycle each year by updating the CCHP for the next fiscal year and include a section which is an up-to-date status report of the previous year's CCHP, including results, changes, noteworthy successes, and lessons learned.

There are no easy solutions. I have only respect for the men and women who serve on the CLB and CHC or those in the MO and HD. The road ahead (pun intended) is full of pot holes and tough choices. Nevertheless the actions taken by the CLB in the past few years has created a ticking time bomb for the county. The roads in Cocke County are vital to our economic prosperity and our safety; they are a $74 million asset. Neglect is not a good strategy. Mother Nature or circumstances will surprise all of us with a tragedy. Before that happens let's find a way to work together, government and volunteers, to create a Cocke County Highway Plan. Let's together build a better understand of our options for the future. What do you think County Legislative Body, County Highway Commission, County Mayor's Office, and Highway Department?


Gilbert Weigand, PhD


Hartford, TN

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