Crunching the numbers: county officials find road maintenance an expensive, often frustrating endeavor

By Buck Collier, Special Correspondent
Posted 1/11/23

When it comes to keeping an adequate amount of materials on Gasconade County’s roads, the members of the County Commission sometimes feel they are caught between a rock and a hard …

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Crunching the numbers: county officials find road maintenance an expensive, often frustrating endeavor

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When it comes to keeping an adequate amount of materials on Gasconade County’s roads, the members of the County Commission sometimes feel they are caught between a rock and a hard place.

It’s an expensive place to be.

Southern District Associate Commissioner Jerry Lairmore, R-Owensville, at last week’s session said county government has been looking at a cost approaching a half-million dollars just for rock and gravel to keep county roads in good, passable shape.

“It’s getting ridiculous what we spend,” Lairmore said during last week’s Commission session in Owensville City Hall. The comment came at a time when county government administrators were just beginning to put pencil to paper in crafting the county’s Road Department operating budget for this year.

Lairmore voiced the same irritation that former Presiding Commissioner Larry Miskel sounded more than once: How can the rock and gravel that’s put on the roads essentially disappear before their eyes?

“I know where the (white) rock goes,” said Miskel during a session last year. “It gets crushed into dust. But where does the gravel go?” he asked rhetorically.

Lairmore is equally perplexed about the aggregate spread over the road. “Nobody has been able to tell me where that rock goes,” he said Thursday morning.

As disheartening as it is to see ever-more-expensive gravel and white rock washed away or ground into dust, perhaps more frustrating is the difficulty the county encounters in recovering gravel from area creeks. There is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deal with, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to placate and possibly other federal and state agencies that throw up hoops counties have to jump through in order to dredge gravel that can save tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars that would — and probably will — be spent on gravel and rock that might eventually get washed into those same creeks the county has such a hard time getting into in the first place.

As Lairmore noted Thursday morning, those regulations “hold us back from doing our job” of maintaining the roads.

Which brings us to paved county roads — or, more accurately, a desire to have paved county roads.

As he has done several times in recent years, Lairmore Thursday morning again explained the process of converting a gravel road to a hard-surface road. For the most part, the key factor is obtaining the necessary right-of-way to allow a gravel road to receive a chip-and-seal surface — and, possibly later, an asphalt overlay.

Indeed, as administrators previously have pointed out, Gasconade County does have a plan for converting gravel roads. Each year, commissioners designate portions of gravel roads, usually one or two roads, to receive chip-and-seal. A mile of chip-and-seal is a fraction of the cost of asphalt and can last a couple or three years before recoating, depending on the amount of traffic. Counties have found chip-and-seal to be an economical step between gravel and asphalt.

Gasconade County budgets between $200,000 and $220,000 each year for chip-and-seal, Lairmore said.

Gasconade County has been more cautious in proceeding with a hard-surface program than have other counties. For instance, many years ago Franklin County adopted a program aimed at hard-surfacing all county roads but when the price of petroleum and asphalt began rising — given the number of miles of road in the state’s fourth-largest county — the County Commission in Franklin backed away from the program. That prompted widespread grumbling toward the Commission from residents who were waiting to see their roads paved.

Lairmore Thursday morning repeated the process for having a road converted during the Commission’s conversation with Mark Schaeperkoetter of Owensville.

“We do them as money comes in,” Lairmore said, adding that traffic count on a road is a big factor in deciding which roads are tagged for chip-and-seal. But obtaining the necessary right-of-way is another big element, he said.

For instance, Lairmore said, Blue House Road in the southeast corner of the county needs to receive chip-and-seal. It’s a well-traveled route connecting Gasconade and Franklin counties. However, there are two property owners along Blue House Road that are holdouts in terms of donating a portion of their property for right-of-way.

Schaeperkoetter asked if the county could use imminent domain to obtain the necessary amount of land. The county could do that, Lairmore said, but added that he’s opposed to the use of imminent domain.

“That’s forcing a property owner to do something they don’t want to do,” the commissioner said. Rather, efforts will continue at persuading the hesitant property owners to join others along the road who want to see it chip-and-sealed.

Gasconade County has about 480 miles of county roadway. Of that, perhaps 30 miles of roadway has received either chip-and-seal or asphalt.

Presiding Commissioner Tim Schulte, who has a background in road building with a major construction company in the region, noted that asphalt is costing about $80 a ton.

“I’d love to have my county road paved, but at $80 a ton it’s not going to happen,” he said.

In the meantime, county administrators will continue trying to solve the mystery of where the gravel goes and grappling with the regulations they run into when they want to recover some of the gravel that’s rapidly filling area creeks.

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