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Stevens County prepares to address aging gravel road system

Winter and spring weather the last two years have made clear the need to repair Stevens County's gravel roads, and the county Board of Commissioners appears motivated to fix them.

County Coordinator Brian Giese spoke with the board on Tuesday about problems, such as frost heaves and muddy stretches, that were prevalent throughout the county's gravel road system after difficult winters the last two years.

The conditions made field work difficult for farmers, and brought to light the need to improve road conditions as the agriculture industry develops beyond the ability of the road system to handle the changes.

The board requested that Giese - who is also the county's Highway Engineer - run numbers on the costs to repair, roughly, five or 10 miles of gravel roads. The commissioners also seemed in agreement that any repairs would require an alternate financial source.

The scope of farming operations and the size of equipment has grown to the point that it has outstripped what the gravel roads were intended to handle. Commissioner Ron Staples said county gravel roads this spring were in the worst shape he's seen and the situation will likely only get worse.

"I don't think our road system is built to handle this ag economy any more," he said.

Giese and commissioner Jeannie Ennen said funding repairs, such as improving drainage, adding and stabilizing the road base, might be offset somewhat by fewer maintenance costs in the future.

Commissioner Phil Gausman also supported a proactive approach, noting that while he hadn't heard many complaints about the difficult road conditions he knows it's on people's minds.

"The opportunity, if ever there was an opportunity, is now," Gausman said.

But Giese estimated that it would cost $2 million to $3 million to renovate about 80 miles of county gravel, and that with an expected shortage of State Aid road funds in coming years, the county probably would have to decide if it wanted to dip into reserves or issue bonds for the projects; even if the tax levy was raised, it would take years to pile up enough money to finance the work, he said.

Gausman agreed with Giese that the repairs would have to be done on a large scale - up to 10-mile stretches at a time - and that taking on such substantive repairs would be costly and would require a new funding source.

"We won't be able to nickel and dime this out of our traditional funding source and make it work," Gausman said.

Commissioner Paul Watzke wondered if the road system wasn't just the victim of happenstance weather conditions the last few years and if more in-depth study wouldn't be helpful.

But Giese said recent weather conditions merely brought an impending crisis to light sooner.

"I think we need to do something," Giese said. "Even though the weather has been exaggerated, the situation is not going to go away."

See the Sun Tribune Web site on Friday afternoon and the paper's print edition on Saturday for more on Tuesday's county board meeting.