By Ben Rowley
This is the first in a two-part series on Nevada’s rural roads. Part Two will cover safety issues next week.
Nevada may not compare well with rest of the nation when it comes to its schools, but at least its rural road conditions are top in the class.
According to USA Today, Nevada joins Florida and Tennessee as having the smallest percentage of major rural roads in bad shape. The paper cites a report by non-profit TRIP stating only three percent of Nevada’s major rural roads and bridges are in disrepair. Meanwhile, Connecticut and Virginia have well over 30 percent needing work.
Mother Nature deserves some credit. The Silver State’s dry climate means less weather erosion on its roadways. But the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) says its pavement preservation program also plays a big part in keeping roads in shape. The department systematically analyzes highways that are reaching an age where repairs are more likely needed. The roads requiring the most work are prioritized for repaving.
“And there’s an important reason we do this,” said NDOT Public Information Officer Meg Ragonese. “We’ve found that it is six times more expensive to repair a road if it is allowed to slip from good to poor condition than it would be to repair that same road when it begins exhibiting deterioration.”
This approach “saves Nevada taxpayers millions,” according to Ragonese. She added NDOT’s approach also means travelers spend less time idling in front of sign-wielding construction workers, because overlay repaving is a much shorter project than full-depth reconstruction.
Nevada road maintenance would be much tougher without federal funding. In Nevada, federal transportation money funds about half of NDOT’s projects. There has been some trepidation in NDOT’s air as they have awaited an agreement from Congress on renewing that funding. The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) has provided funding for the nation’s transportation system since 2012, but the bill was set to expire. Congress did pass a $10.9 billion bill to keep federal transportation funding coming through May 2014, according to The Hill, but was unable to agree on a long-term deal.
If federal funding had stopped, “Many much needed projects would be delayed and an estimated 6,000 jobs in the construction sector would not be realized,” according to a recent NDOT report.
Outside of NDOT’s control and the TRIP report are roads and bridges residing within town and city limits, which are under the jurisdiction of local road departments. In other words, keeping the road in front of your home or business in good shape is a whole different ballgame, and opinions vary from town to town on how well local roads are maintained.
Mesquite residents gave their city a B average in a recent poll conducted on the Mesquite Local News website. Meanwhile voters on The Ely Times website gave Ely road conditions a C- average. Mineral County residents voting on the Mineral County Independent News site gave their road conditions a C, Lincoln County residents chiming in on the Lincoln County Record site, gave their roads a C+ and Eureka residents voting on The Eureka Sentinel website, gave their area a B-.
Funding for proper road maintenance is a continual issue, according to City of Ely Public Works Director Ron Jenkins. “Any city municipality will tell you the same thing,” he said. “There’s just not enough money to do what we need to do.”
Street maintenance budgets vary. Ely, population 4,250, has a fiscal year 2014 street fund budget of $430,899. Mesquite, with a population of around 16,000, has a streets and drainage budget of $1,114,226.
Looking at Ely, the majority of funding comes from taxes collected by White Pine County and is supplemented by some city revenue and funds coming from the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC), which the county also distributes in cooperation with RTC. This year, Ely actually received the full allotment of White Pine County’s RTC funding to the tune of $400,000. The Ely Public Works Department is using the cash infusion to complete needed road maintenance work throughout the city.
“We are going to fog seal all the newer streets; keep those preserved,” Jenkins said. “We’re also going to try a chip seal on one of the streets.”
A major problem with improving roads are not the roads themselves, but what lies beneath them. Buried under many of Ely’s streets are old sewer and water lines. In the past, workers have overhauled major streets, only to have to tear into them to fix broken lines. “One example is Ely Avenue,” Jenkins said. “That was paved over old utilities and we’ve had to tear into that a couple of times.”
So now road repavings follow where new water and sewer lines are put in. It’s a better long-term approach but adds to the complexity and cost of any major road project. Murray Street was considered for repaving this year, but Ely was unable budget the funds to upgrade the older sewer line underground. So the city opted for the maintenance projects instead.
The city does want to point out to residents that if you’re tired of driving over the same pothole everyday, there is money available to have it filled. “We’ll go in and patch the potholes and level the road off the best we can,” said city street department employee Dave Burky.
In the end, for both major local road projects or state highway projects, it always goes back to funding, or lack thereof. Locally, it’s about scraping together enough revenue from county tax dollars and wherever else to be able improve the roads. For NDOT, it’s about hoping Congress will continue a funding level that keeps Nevada’s rural highways top in the class.
Ben Rowley is a small business owner living in Rural Nevada and is the web editor for Battle Born Media’s publications. His writing focuses on issues related to small town living.