Rural Roads, Bridges Need Help

PULLMAN, Wash. — Despite recent improvements, the condition of rural roads and bridges across the state continues to deteriorate, according to the findings of a recent survey of county engineers.

“Even though counties have been able to make some improvements during the past five years, we’re really concerned about a potential collapse of the rural road system,” said Ken Casavant, transportation economist at Washington State University.

Earlier this year, Casavant and Kathleen Painter, a post-doctoral research associate, sent surveys to county engineers across the state to assess the condition of the state’s county road system. The agricultural economists compared answers with a similar survey conducted five years earlier.

Engineers from 31 of the state’s 39 counties responded to the 1999 survey. The counties employing them represent about 90 percent of the state’s population and 75 percent of the state’s area.

The survey found that the average number of miles of road per county permanently posted or restricted increased from an average of nine miles per county in 1994 to 130 miles per county in 1999. The state has 41,000 miles of county roads.

Six counties, five of them in eastern Washington, had estimated closures exceeding 100 miles. Franklin County topped the list with 968 miles. Neighboring Grant County was second with 820 miles of closed roads. Ferry County has an estimated 700 miles of closed roads followed by Grays Harbor with 570, Benton County with 250 and Columbia County, 220.

“Roads are closed for many reasons,” Casavant explained. “Some counties can’t afford to maintain all of them all of the time. Some may be closed seasonally because they get too soft in the spring. When that happens, farmers can’t move grain or bring inputs to the farm. We’re in real trouble if we miss a market opportunity because of the lack of adequate roads.”

While there was a one percent increase in paved roads over the five- year period, the researchers noted a trend toward use of less permanent surfacing materials. In the five year period, the survey found a nine percent increase in the percentage of roads surfaced with gravel and a seven percent decline in use of high quality bituminous asphalt.

“Basically,” Casavant said, “counties are forced by funding shortages to trade cost-savings today for potentially higher maintenance costs tomorrow. From the public’s perspective, increased wear and tear on their vehicles as well as dustier conditions may result from some of these surface treatment choices.”

Fewer of the counties’ 3,200 bridges were rated as intolerable or closed in the latest survey. Nearly one-quarter fell in that category in 1994; only three percent in 1999.

The explanation: “We’re abandoning some; we’re re-routing traffic around them; we’re replacing them with culverts or lengthening them so that they qualify for federal funding,” Casavant said.

The survey found that the average number of bridges less than 20 feet in length declined by more than half between 1994 and 1999, from 91 per county to 42.

The study also found a shift in traffic levels over the five-year period.

“The number of roads that have very little traffic on them increased significantly,” Casavant said. “On the other end of the spectrum we’ve got a lot of roads that have a lot of traffic indicating a shift in distribution of traffic.”

For rural roads, congestion was reported as the most common problem in urban Pierce and King counties.

“In the future, we may have to abandon more of the lightly used roads,” Casavant said. “Unfortunately, they lead to farmsteads and processing sheds. They aren’t the big ones, but they need livable market access.”

A signficant portion of the study focused on barriers to increased use of intermodal transportation. Intermodal transportation is the use of more than one mode of transportation to move the same product.

The biggest barriers noted by county engineers were poor road surface conditions for the trucking industry, car scheduling and availability problems for rail, lack of transfer facilities, such as at airports, or poor access to transfer stations.

Other transportation problems cited by engineers included rail line abandonment.

“Abandonment of rail lines across the state has put more pressure on county roads,” Casavant said. “We’ve lost 37 percent of our trackage over the last 20 years. Engineers in counties where bulk commodities are shipped by barge, expressed concern about potential additional truck traffic that would be generated if dams were breached, especially those counties where rail lines have been abandoned.”

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