Uniquely Weakley – Your Monthly Call From the County
Let’s Talk About: Weakley County Roads
“Dinner is over when you’ve talked about religion, politics, and county roads.” – My Dad
The general subject of county roads can be a delicate one and is often shrouded in misinformation. As it is the responsibility of your county local government [again – this is the courthouse calling] to make information available and free of opinion, this month’s Uniquely Weakley installation is dedicated to providing some facts and distinctions regarding our rural, county maintained roads. Let’s break it down by expounding on a few answers to questions in the hopes of providing a clear picture of the many moving parts involved with this expansive topic.
WHAT QUALIFIES AS A COUNTY MAINTAINED ROAD?
Weakley County encompasses 576 square miles and 368,300 acres. The county has approximately 930 total road miles that are maintained by the Weakley County Highway Department. All state highways, new and old, are maintained by the Tennessee Department of Transportation [TDOT]. Any part of a road that is located inside the city limits is maintained by that respective city’s Public Works Department. If a road is located outside of the city limits, and it is not an old or new state highway, it is maintained by the county. The county also maintains 177 bridges.
WHERE DOES WEAKLEY COUNTY RANK?
According to information compiled by the TN County Highway Officials Association (TCHOA) for the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS), Weakley County ranks 9th highest out of 95 counties in the state for the total number of road miles, and 2nd highest in the West Tennessee region. This ranking includes all metropolitan and highly populated counties. In terms of total number of bridges, Weakley is 19th highest in the state, and ranks 5th highest regionally.
WHAT DOES A COUNTY HIGHWAY DEPARTMENT DO?
On county maintained roads and bridges, Weakley County’s Highway Department is responsible for: construction and reconstruction of roads, bridge repair and maintenance, road paving, surface treating, repair and replacement of culverts and drainage systems, cleaning and improving ditches, cutting trees and brush, grading and patching shoulders and pavement, repair and maintenance of highway machinery and equipment, traffic sign maintenance and fabrication, mowing right-of-ways, litter control, and many other projects. Highway Department crews are on constant call; if a tree falls blocking the road in an ice storm, county road crews are on call 24/7 to make our roads passable as quickly as possible.
EXPLAIN THE FUNDS ALLOCATED VERSES COSTS ASSOCIATED?
In the 2017-18 fiscal year budget, the county highway department budget appropriation was $8.47 million. These monies are the allocation for everything the department will need for the year to operate, including all road and bridge repair and reconstruction materials, signage and tools, equipment and machinery purchasing and maintenance for roads and mowing, electricity and water, insurance, and paying the department employees – everything.
Depending on the width of the road, prep work, costs for asphalt and other materials, striping, labor, with everything needed included, the cost to pave one single rural road mile is roughly estimated at $100,000. Using that example, it is clear that the budget does not align with any expectation of quick results when it comes to paving roads. Costs are not the only challenge involved. Contractors stay backlogged as other counties across the state are also experiencing the need for road repair. Weather plays a very important role and the overall planning, organizing, and execution of road repairs take time.
Another thing that must be considered is that Weakley County is not a ‘rocky’ county. Road repair and maintenance requires gravel and every rock that is used for filling potholes, patching, and all manner of road repair must be purchased and retrieved from gravel and rock distribution companies 50 to 60 miles away, and then hauled back to Weakley County. The point here is to drive home that the necessity of purchasing rock, a free and abundant natural resource for many counties, creates an added financial disadvantage.
WHY IS A HIGHWAY DEPARTMENT/CENTRAL MAINTENANCE SHOP RENOVATION NEEDED?
The current Highway Department facility is located at 608 County Maintenance Road in Dresden and was constructed in the mid-1970s. As is often the case with aging buildings, problems have developed slowly. The equipment required to work on the roads has increased in both size and length, but the amount of space to repair, maintain, and store the equipment has remained the same. Safety, accessibility, and ADA compliance is a primary concern. At present, the building has leaking water and sewage pipes under the concrete floor and offices are located on the upper floor with no elevator. The facility at its current state is not suitable for moving office spaces downstairs, as doing so would take away more of the limited space that crews currently have to repair, maintain, and store equipment. Certain times of the day become highly congested in and around the grounds and fueling area. All in all, the facility is inadequate in many respects to the work that is being performed there. An important takeaway is to note that none of the funding for the building and grounds improvements will be expended from the Highway Department fiscal year budget. Let’s make that very clear: All funding in the Weakley County Highway Department Budget will only be used for highway department duties and responsibilities, and not toward any building or grounds renovations.
HOW HAS THE CHANGE IN TRAFFIC AFFECTED OUR COUNTY ROADS?
Roads don’t rest. Roads are a service, and this service is open and available around the clock every day to everyone. As populations grow, road usage naturally increases. More than ever, our county road traffic includes a growing amount of larger 18-wheel farm trucks, chicken trucks, clay trucks, hog trucks, and farming machinery. Tennessee farmers feed the world and agriculture is Tennessee’s number one industry. With the rapidly expanding need to feed more and more people, the subsequent increase in traffic has aided in the unavoidable long-term wear of the roads. When our local roads were originally designed and constructed, the foundation of the road, or road base, was not built to support the size and weight of the vehicles and machinery that utilize the roads today. To best accommodate the changing traffic load on our roads, changes must be made to rework the existing road base. Stated well by the USDOT Federal Highway Administration, “If the [road] foundation fails, the pavement fails. Paving a road with poor base is a waste of money.” The good news is the current highway department supervisor is making plans for a technique called full-depth road reclamation, which processes and rebuilds worn out asphalt pavements by recycling the existing roadway to produce a strong, durable base for the road. The challenge is that the process will require time and funding to complete.
WHY US – AND WHAT NOW?
Across the country, counties and cities are encountering similar obstacles: the number of road and bridge repairs needed vastly exceeds the funding available to restore county road systems. Evidence of this is the implementation of Tennessee’s IMPROVE Act, part of which was an effort to help fund the state's $10 billion in backlogged road projects. That said, Tennessee is on the forefront of taking action in road improvements. According to the Repair Priorities 2019 Report performed by Transportation For America and Taxpayers for Common Sense, Tennessee ranked in the top five states in the nation for having the lowest percentage of roads classified “in poor condition” as of 2017, as well as ranking in the top five for having the highest percentage of roads classified as “in good condition” as of 2017. These numbers reiterate that the problem is not one that is isolated to our county or state; it’s a national dilemma, and Tennessee is one of the states that is stepping up to make roads a priority.
As the state continues this concentrated effort on road and bridge repairs, we will hopefully begin to see the focus shift to exploring solutions to the challenges facing local governments and rural areas. Recognizing that these hurdles face us collectively as a community, county, region, and state helps make it easier to see that the issue is multifaceted and complicated. There is a monumental amount of work that lies ahead, but rest assured that the Weakley County Highway Department is up for the challenge.
To report a road issue, call the Weakley County Highway Department at (731) 364-2284. For more information and links to sources for this article, visit www.weakleycountytn.gov.
Until next month, stay #UniquelyWeakley.
Erica Miller Moore
Weakley County Government