May 9, 2013

Who pays for heavy road use?

The Town of Dryden held an informational meeting last night on a proposed Road Protection law. I went feeling uncertain about whether we actually needed a law - fracking seems distant at the moment - and came away convinced by the law's opponents that we could have used this all along.

While road failure often looks like a seasonal thing, with potholes appearing in late winter and spring, the reality is more complicated. Heavy vehicles do vastly more damage to roads than light ones, and road failures can happen quickly once a threshold is reached. The invisible tends to become visible suddenly. While towns plan their road systems around expectations of use, unexpected projects can pound those roads into expensive collapse.

Fracking has driven the road protection conversation over the last few years, including many places that eagerly want fracking but don't want to pay for the damage to their roads. These laws don't bar development, but they do make sure that developers pay for the unusual costs they incur. (Locally, DRAC has encouraged this conversation and many DRAC folks were at the meeting last night.)

Steve Sanyshyn of Delta Engineering explained the way the road protection law worked in detail. Developers - not truckers, developers - with projects that will put a substantial number of trucks in motion fill out an initial form when they get their permits. The form collects information about the number of round trips broken down by Federal Highway Administration vehicle classifications (here with pictures). It then uses those calculations, combined with a rough estimation of Equivalent Single Axle Loads (ESALs) to see if the project crosses a threshold requiring a closer look.

The suggested threshold was 50 ESALs, which allows pretty much any number of small (pickup truck and smaller) vehicles or up to 119 three-axle class 6 trucks, like dump trucks.

Projects that cross that threshold get a more detailed look. That look can include road studies, monitoring, and agreements to make sure that the developer pays repair costs, not the town.

This only applies to construction projects with a start and end date, whether building construction, fracking, or, as seemed to come up most frequently when real projects came up, large-scale fill hauling. Regular operations of school buses, fire trucks, concrete plants, gravel mines, and so on would go on as usual, because they are regular use that the Town has already planned for. Normal house construction won't come near the threshold. The road protection would only apply in cases where projects created large temporary spikes of traffic on Town roads. (Town roads are those marked in green on the official Town map.)

Bruno Schickel, Bernie Cornelius, Dennis Mix, and David Bravo-Cullen all asked a variety of questions about the intent and details of the law. Some of the questions - Bravo-Cullen's in particular - were clarifying, but a lot of it was not. Two threads in particular seemed like they were looking for any point on which to attack the law, even if it meant contradicting their other arguments:

  • Raising taxes would be terrible, but even though roads are the largest chunk of the Town budget, it would also be terrible to inflict use fees on the people making those road repairs necessary.

  • A complicated form would be dreadful, but without a complicated form you can't possibly capture what's really happening in the work.

The first argument has the unfortunate side effect of reminding me of how much of our town (and county and state) taxes go to pay for roads that would last far longer if there weren't massive trucks on them. At the town level, where gasoline taxes aren't a factor, a system originally created to make sure farmers could get from their farms to markets has grown into something else. Right now, all town taxpayers are subsidizing dump trucks pouring fill into the town for little long-term benefit, any time those trucks use town roads.

Of course, about the rudest thing possible in modern politics is pointing out to someone complaining about taxes that they're actually the beneficiary of massive subsidies, and I don't think Bernie Cornelius is fond of me at the moment.

(To take it further, the largest producer of construction fill is usually Cornell, with their Synchrotron expansion project gearing up to create many many more tons of fill. After hearing years of complaints about how Cornell doesn't pay taxes, I'm not sure Dryden taxpayers are looking forward to subsidizing Cornell's latest ventures in fill.)

Dennis Mix and Bruno Schickel pursued the complication questions, arguing both that the form was too complicated and that it didn't capture enough information. Highway engineers seem to think in ESALs, and ESALs are built deeply into the expectations for road design and maintenance, so questioning their use to simplify the initial paperwork seems strange. The other options would be massive paperwork or some kind of surveillance, and I didn't see anyone eager to encourage those.

Schickel concluded by asking that the threshold be set as high as possible, and I suspect that "what threshold?" is going to be the key question moving forward with the law. Sanyshyn suggested 50 ESALs as normal, and mentioned a Town that thought its roads were in great shape had gone with 70.

There are other hard questions in the road protection law - projects in other municipalities or even other states that create traffic here can be difficult to track. Cooperating with other municipalities can capture a lot of that, and "have the highway crews keep an eye out" was Sanyshyn's suggestion. Enforcement on projects that aren't immediately local is going to be difficult. (I suspect that's a larger problem for county roads which tend to connect better, than for the Town roads. The county has its own road protection law.)

Hopefully road protection will protect taxpayers.

Posted by simon at May 9, 2013 5:56 AM in
Note on photos


Hilary Lambert said:

We need to know more about where all this fill, about which such fantastical scenarios were presented at last night's meeting, would be dumped in Dryden.
There are a lot of high-quality streams, ponds, creeks and wetlands in Dryden, so dumping this waste on a large scale could have negative impacts on natural flowing water quality, well water quality and quantity, natural habitats, and other ecosystem functions.
Are these dumpers presently filling in creeks, waterways and wetlands in Dryden? I was quite alarmed last night to hear about these apparently constitutionally-guaranteed rights to dump waste anywhere freely in Dryden. We need to know more now about these practices, even before any additional mega-dumping is discussed.