County road department preparing for the worst |

County road department preparing for the worst

Motorists and bicyclists will have to get used to a much rougher ride on county roads if local voters don’t open their pocketbooks this fall.

Brian Pettet, Pitkin County’s public works director, said if the county’s current fiscal crisis becomes long-term reality, most of the road and bridge department’s resources will go toward maintaining the seven busiest county roads.

Under the worst-case scenario, Thompson Creek Road, upper Snowmass Creek Road and upper Frying Pan Road, for instance, will eventually degrade from hard to gravel surfaces. Other paved roads will be maintained with chip and seal methods that maintain a rough pavementlike surface that is particularly hard on road cyclists.

And a plan to pave the last unpaved stretch of Owl Creek Road, the eighth busiest road in the county, will be scrapped.

“We don’t have an optimal capital replacement plan now, and if we have to make further cuts, it will only be worse,” Pettet said.

With a $1.9 million shortfall in this year’s budget and projected deficits of $2.2 million a year for the next five years, the county is looking at major cutbacks – on top of those already made – in every department.

Late last month, the county laid off three employees and made other cuts to make up part of the $1.9 million gap. The moves came on top of a decision in January to eliminate six positions, all of which were unfilled at the time, and cut 5 percent from the operating expenses in departments that depend on the county’s general fund.

The county budget has been shrinking because two major sources of revenue – sales taxes and development/building fees – have been much less fruitful than anticipated.

The county commissioners plan to ask for property tax increases that would amount to about $99 extra a year for each $1 million in property value. If approved, the increases would make up for most of the lost revenue.

County officials have said most of the positions eliminated will not be restored even if voters approve the tax increase. Instead, the money would be used to stabilize the budget and maintain the already reduced level of service.

If voters decline, the county will need to make even deeper cuts to bring county services and facilities in line with the budget.

One of the most costly programs in the county is the road and bridge department. It is responsible for building and maintaining some 268 miles of county roads and is likely to be one of the hardest hit by any cutbacks.

This year’s road and bridge budget for capital projects – paving and chip and seal work – is $1.3 million; another $1.64 million is spent on maintenance and operations. The department has 12 employees, the same number as in 1992.

Like other department managers in the county, Pettet has been preparing for a worst-case scenario of declining county revenues and no tax increases. Pettet told the commissioners last week that the most viable option in that instance was to maintain the seven busiest county roads at current levels, with regular surface care and occasional work on the road base, while reducing maintenance to a minimum on the remainder.

The seven busiest roads include Brush Creek Road, lower Castle Creek Road, Red Mountain Road, McLain Flats Road, Upper River Road, all the roads in the Airport Business Center, and Maroon Creek Road up to the winter closure gate. The rest would receive surface repairs as needed.

“I think we’ll do fairly well over the short term – by short term we mean 10 years,” Pettet said.

Over time, however, reduced maintenance schedules will take their toll both on the roads and the county budget. Pettet and others at public works have pointed out that letting roads go to pot now costs more in the long term, because once a road reaches a certain level of disrepair, restoring it costs more than all the money saved by not maintaining it.

Pettet also said the cost of maintaining heavily traveled Owl Creek Road as a gravel road is more expensive than paving it. Little work would be needed for 10 or so years if the road was paved, he said, while currently crews of six to eight employees spend four or five days a month working on the gravel surface during busy times of the year.

The timing of the road and bridge budget woes couldn’t be worse for Snowmass Village, which is about to embark on the Base Village development project and add hundreds of thousands of square feet of residential and commercial space. But the county faces a situation where it will have no money to pave Owl Creek Road or make needed improvements to Brush Creek Road once Base Village is generating tourist traffic.

“Snowmass Village is going to see some dramatic changes in the next few years,” Pettet said. “We expect both Brush Creek and Owl Creek roads to be dramatically impacted by construction traffic while it’s being built and then by the residents and an increase in the number of visitors once it’s completed.”

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