Last Monday’s pounding rain turned many gravel roads in the Perry area into swimming sinks of mud, a condition “just beyond anything I’ve ever seen,” said Dallas County Supervisor Brad Golightly at Tuesday’s meeting, speaking in particular about a stretch of gravel in his neighborhood, H Avenue between 150th and 180th streets.
“You can’t hardly get through,” Golightly said. “If we were all samurai soldiers, we would be led out to the woods right now to commit harikari because the road is beyond bad and is worse than a Level C right now.”
Harikari is a form of ritual self-disembowelment once practiced by warriors in Japan in situations of acute public shame. Iowa society prefers to exact retribution from its political warriors at the ballot box.
“We have a lot of roads that are in poor condition,” said Dallas County Engineer Al Miller, “very poor condition,” and “over the next couple of years we’re going to be dealing with roads that are sloppy when it rains.”
The problem is in part a result of chronic under-funding, said Miller, who took the helm of the county’s secondary roads department last fall after the retirement of 18-year director Jim George.
Miller said the 300 miles of gravel roads north of Iowa Highway 44 pose a special problem, and it will not be solved overnight.
“If I had the money,” Miller said, “we have a number of miles of road that need to be regraded. There’s a lot of ditches that have gotten full. The crown is non-existent on a lot of roads, and water is running down the road and taking material off the road. If I could, we would close down a section of road at a time and regrade the entire road.”
Golightly said he received numerous calls after Monday’s rainstorm from constituents concerned, sometimes enraged, about the state of their granular-surface roads. “Help me understand this,” he said to Miller, “because I get a lot of questions, and I can’t always answer their questions when people call and send faxes and things. What’s the plan?”
Gravel roads are first “crowned up and pulled in,” Miller said, and a pair of motor graders can pull in the shoulders and make crowns on all the roads in a township in one day. A township in Dallas County covers 9 square miles and has 18 miles of gravel roadway. One of the bottlenecks in the process is getting the rock on the road, Miller said.
“We can only resurface about a mile and a half a day,” he said, “and we probably have 300 miles north of Highway 44, so it’s going to be a process to get those roads back into shape and, while working on them, we’re going to have these issues that we’ve had right now with all the rain.”
Miller’s department maintains 200 miles of paved and 700 miles of granular-surface roadways in Dallas County.
“There’s some roads up there that haven’t been resurfaced in quite some time,” Miller said, “plus the material we have been using is extremely sandy.” He said the county recently quit buying the sandy material and switched to limestone from Ames.
Weather is also a crucial factor. “We got caught in the rain,” Miller said. “The problem is in reshaping roads. Until we get them resurfaced, we’re vulnerable to the type of weather we have now. All the folks up in the north end have been pulling in the shoulders and getting crowns on the road, and we’re extremely vulnerable to rain right now on most all of our roads up in that area.”
Supervisor Kim Chapman asked Miller how work is prioritized among those 300 miles of roads. Miller said farm-to-market roads are the top priority and the first to be resurfaced, with traffic counts and overall condition the criteria for choosing among the other gravel roads.
“It’s a bit overwhelming, with all the miles we have,” Miller said, “to try to deal with the weather and running here and there to these emergency-type situations and also stay on priority schedule with our rock hauling.”
At the same time, he said, “it doesn’t do us any good to move everybody from the south to the north and work all the roads at one time because the more you work them, the more vulnerable you are to weather.”
The Dallas County Secondary Roads Department operates 10 motor grader out of its satellites shops at Adel, Granger, Perry and Redfield.
Board of Supervisors Chair Mark Hanson asked whether hiring contract rock haulers on a temporary basis would speed up the process.
“The problem is I don’t want to start hauling rock on roads that haven’t been crowned up,” Miller said. “We’ve done that for a period of time, but you really need to reshape a road before you put rock on it or you’re if not wasting your money, you’re not getting the benefit out of the material and the dollars you’re spending.”
An exception to this rule was made last week when H Avenue became “impassible” and Miller’s crew was “trying to get rock on the road just to keep local access open.”
At $8.6 million, the secondary roads department is the second-largest line in the county’s $38 million budget for fiscal year 2015-2016. Public safety and legal services is the largest budget item at $10.2 million.