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As gas tax dries up, Washington County roads worsen

Officials say lack of funding makes maintenance difficult

All those hybrid and electric cars on the road may be good for the environment, but they’re doing a number on county roads, according to Washington County officials.

The Washington County Department of Land Use and Transportation is charged with maintaining the county’s many roads and bridges, but has been unable to keep up with needs over the last few years, thanks to a budget shortfall that Andrew Singelakis, director of the department, blames on an influx of environmentally-friendly cars.

“We’re seeing a decline in our road conditions,” he said. “We see it on annual basis. It’s gradually declining.”

The money to maintain Washington County’s many roads, bridges, culverts, traffic signals and street lights largely comes from state and county gas taxes, but county officials say that the influx of hybrid and electric cars — which use little to no gasoline — have meant fewer gas tax dollars, making it difficult to keep up with the county’s aging, and expanding, road system.

“There is a lack of awareness by the general public about what goes into it all,” Singelakis said.

Singelakis estimates the county needs an additional $11 million a year just to keep up with maintenance.

As they motor along Washington County’s roads, most drivers likely haven’t noticed a deterioration in their surfaces, Singelakis said, but it is happening.

“There is a backlog of maintenance needs that are not readily visible to the public,” Singelakis said. “There is a lot going on under the road that people can’t see. Just because it looks OK doesn’t mean that it is. It could easily fall into a state of disrepair.”

That’s what happened on Timber Road last winter. A bridge on the rural Washington County road near Gales Creek washed out after heavy flooding in the area. A school bus driver drove over the road and called in to county road crews, warning that the condition of the road seemed off when they drove over it.

By the time crews arrived, the road had been washed away in the flood.

“If we had been on top of our maintenance, that wouldn’t have happened,” Singelakis said. “We will be seeing more and more instances like that if we don’t address the funding shortfall.”

It’s not just roads, Singelakis said. More than 40 percent of Washington County’s 184 bridges are currently categorized as “deficient.” More than a dozen are weight limited, meaning they aren’t able to handle the weight of heavier traffic.

Officials in Salem are debating a new transportation package which could change how maintenance funding is paid for, Singelakis said, but there is no easy fix.

“Only certain pots of money can be used to pay for certain things,” Singelakis said. “It’s important for the public to understand the complexities of the issue.”

Cities and counties rate their roads on a scale of 1 to 100. Known as the pavement condition index, or PCI, counties are able to keep track of how well their roads are doing.

Currently, Washington County rates their roads at about 77 percent. A fair number, Singelakis said, but that number is on the decline.

“Once it gets down into the low 70s, you’re looking at roads needing to be completely reconstructed,” Singelakis said. “We don’t want it to get that low.”

“We needed this addressed two years ago,” Singelakis added. “It’s an ongoing issue. The sooner this is fixed, the better.”