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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow ROAD LESS TRAVELED MIGHT GO GRAVEL

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ROAD LESS TRAVELED MIGHT GO GRAVEL

ROAD WOES: Union County's public works director Richard Comstock stands on Gekeler Lane, one of three county roads he believes should be turned to gravel to reduce maintenance costs. Comstock and the county commissioners toured the roads Monday. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).
ROAD WOES: Union County's public works director Richard Comstock stands on Gekeler Lane, one of three county roads he believes should be turned to gravel to reduce maintenance costs. Comstock and the county commissioners toured the roads Monday. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Union County's public works director was frustrated.

"It's not new money," Richard Comstock said as he drove around the county roads Monday. "People think we've got new money, but we get a lot less now than we did in 1991."

Comstock was talking about the amount of money received by counties from federal forest receipts. When logging declined in national forests, so did highway revenues, down to as low as about $160,000 in 2000. That year, Congress approved the county payments bill, which tied federal payments to counties to the forest receipts of the 1980s.

The 2000 legislation increased the county's highway budget to about $620,000 for 2003 — a little more than half the $1.1 million received in 1991. In two years, the legislation will again be up for consideration.

It's not enough to get the job done, Comstock said, and the county is examining the possibility of turning three paved roads into gravel roads.

The three county commissioners, Steve McClure, Colleen MacLeod and John Lamoreau, rode with Comstock over roads dotted with potholes and striped with cracked asphalt.

"We can't afford to maintain these roads," Comstock said. "We can afford to maintain gravel roads."

Two of the roads, Woodruff near Cove and Gekeler Lane between Pierce and Peach roads, are primarily farm-to-market roads, with few houses.

Owsley Canyon Road, however, has a few residences along the short stretch that may become gravel. Owsley already is gravel along its higher elevation and the stretch of road closest to the La Grande city limits will remain paved.

Within the past five years, the county has torn up deteriorated pavement on

three other roads — Peace, Standley and Airport Lane.

The biggest complaint about gravel roads is the dust generated during the summer, McClure said.

"We don't have the funds to provide dust abatement," Comstock said. "A lot of people do their own oil and we blade the road first."

"A paved road is a higher standard than gravel," McClure said. "We'll get complaints from people who say we're taking away their paved roads."

The base of some of the roads, including Gekeler, was not properly prepared when the roads were paved during the 1960s, McClure said. All roads under consideration have been patched and repatched.

"It's becoming a safety issue," Comstock said.

McAlister Road and Buchanan Lane at Island City are being completely rebuilt with special state transportation grants, McClure said. That money may not be used for other projects, he said.

"We're not the only county with this problem," McClure said. "Many others are in the same fix."

The milder-than-usual winter has reduced the need to plow roads to a minimum, Comstock said, and many of the 24 public works employees are getting a head start on spring maintenance on the 650 miles of county roads. Five hundred of those miles are gravel.

Funds for snow removal are not budgeted separately from other road maintenance, McClure said.

Commissioner MacLeod said she is optimistic that logging in national forests will return to the level of the late 1980s or 90s.

"Based on our president's statement that he's committed to improving management in forests, I'm optimistic about forest receipts," she said.

The county does receive gas tax funds from the state, but McClure said he can't predict what the current Legislature will do about the tax.

"If the county tried to pass a gas tax, you'd need to talk about 8 to 10 cents a gallon, and that's not going to happen," he said.

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