County faces $380M road-repair backlog


Current construction along Southwest 122nd Street is among the road projects funded by a $33 million bond repaid through revenues from a gas tax that was approved in 2005.

Erica Brough/Staff photographer
Published: Sunday, August 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 31, 2010 at 10:32 p.m.

In the Micanopy area, cracks extend along the surface of narrow Wacahoota Road.

The stretch of County Road 236 between U.S. 441 in High Springs and Interstate 75 has deteriorated to the point that the pavement is crumbling in some areas.

North of Gainesville, the approximately six miles of Northwest County Road 231 between State Road 121 and State Road 235 is a stretch of patchwork repairs and ruts that is worn down to the road base in some spots.

These three roads are a small sampling of the repair work needed on the county government's existing network of paved roads.

A recent "snapshot in time" field survey by the Public Works Department concluded that Alachua County's backlog of road repair and maintenance needs has swollen to $380 million, a figure that does not include any new road construction or widening projects that include additional lanes. More than half of the 677 miles in the county's paved road network is in need of at least "major repair" work or more intense structural or reconstruction projects.

The backlog has grown from $360 million in 2005, despite the fact that county commissioners have approved more than $42 million for road reconstruction and maintenance projects.

Even with the extra nickel local option gas tax in place, revenues have failed to keep up with the maintenance needs. The report's recommendations to the County Commission include scheduling a voter referendum on a one-cent sales tax to fund infrastructure needs "as soon as possible" and the establishment of assessment districts to fund road projects within subdivisions. As new roads are built, the county should set aside money annually to pay for proactive maintenance in an effort to reduce repair costs in the future, the report recommended.

County Engineer Dave Cerlanek said road segments in need of significant work are "sprinkled all over the county" with many deteriorating roadways in rural, outlying areas. The report shows photographs of the cracks that spread like a spider web across the surface of Northwest 32nd Avenue and the deterioration of roads such as Southeast 43rd Street and Northwest 94th Avenue.

Approximately 85 percent of the road network is in need of at least some repair work. The pavement on most county roads is 23 to 25 years old, while the average life expectancy of roadway pavement, depending on traffic volume, is 15 to 20 years.

Cerlanek said the current County Commission has put tens of millions of dollars toward road projects. "They have done a lot," he said. "This board has put money toward roads. With all we've done, we haven't been able to keep up."

In 2005, $8.3 million in gas tax reserves and $1 million from the general fund were allocated to fund the repaving of Northwest/Northeast 53rd Avenue, a segment of Northwest County Road 236, Southwest 20th/24th Avenue and Southwest Eighth Avenue.

That same year, a $33 million bond repaid through gas tax revenues was approved for a list of projects that includes Northwest County Road 241, Northeast County Road 1474, North Main Street from North Eighth Avenue to North 23rd Avenue, the current construction on Southwest 122nd Street and planned projects on Southeast County Road 325 and Southwest 91st Street.

Talking about the condition of county roads, High Springs resident John Roberts raised a question many residents might share. "What happened to the money from that extra nickel?" Roberts said, referring to the local option gas tax commissioners approved in 2007.

"It's a little aggravating," Roberts added. "A lot of folks who live out here don't see a lot of services. Why in the world, with all the money we pay in taxes, can't we drive down a road that's decently maintained?"

This fiscal year, that extra nickel local option gas tax is projected to bring in just less than $3 million - with 75 percent of the money going for road repair and reconstruction projects, 15 percent for maintenance of unpaved roads and 10 percent for multi-modal bike and pedestrian projects.

The County Commission's plan had been to save up money from the extra nickel to do major road projects on a "pay-as-you-go basis." The county started collecting the extra nickel in 2008 and still is saving up for the first project, Northwest 16th Avenue/23rd Avenue. Commissioners now might borrow money up front to pay for the Northwest 16th/23rd project, CR 231 and the repaving of Southwest 63rd Boulevard/62nd Avenue.

The county would pay off that bond with revenues from the extra nickel, a move that likely would require extending that extra gas tax beyond its current 2018 sunset date.

County Commissioner Mike Byerly said he is not "particularly comfortable" with borrowing the money but said it could cut costs in the long run.

"Public Works (staff) made a good case that when you delay a $1 million repair, it becomes $5 million," Byerly added.

Overall, the county's total gas tax revenues are projected to be just less than $11.8 million this year. The majority of that, almost $7.2 million, goes toward operations, including transportation division salaries, routine maintenance and minor repair work. More than $1.6 million goes toward the debt on the prior road bond.

The Public Works Department report concluded that, to catch up with road needs, "the best option for obtaining the needed funding appears to be through a long-term sales tax initiative," with an additional 1 percent tax bringing in $28 million annually.

County commissioners already have declined to put a sales tax to voters this fall, and the deadline to do so has passed. In 2004, voters defeated a sales tax initiative to fund road projects. Byerly said he does "not think it is realistic" to bank on any future sales tax as a source of funding.

If a road sales tax referendum went on the ballot in the next few years, it could be one of multiple initiatives, including a potential tax to pay for children's programs after the 1/4-cent CHOICES sales tax sunsets at the end of 2011.

Presenting the proposed budget for the next fiscal year, County Manager Randall Reid urged commissioners to keep the county's road infrastructure needs in mind should they decide in coming years to put a sales tax to voters.

"There is a growing trend for the boards of nonprofits to abandon their own focused fundraising in the private sector and to turn to government subsidies or tax referendums in order to fund their programs," Reid wrote in his budget message. "This places tremendous pressure on the marginal abilities of local government to fund their own programs when revenue streams such as sales tax are suddenly sought after as a funding source for non-government programs. The public will only approve a limited number of tax referendums.

"With the well-recognized deficit in traditional community infrastructure, particularly a $300 million backlog in transportation improvements projects, it is important that we not neglect the traditional uses of these tax funds as we establish priorities."

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088.

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