Located in in the heart of Minnesota lake country, Ottertail County maintains 1,052 miles of highway. This year fewer miles of crumbling asphalt are being rebuilt, and more are being patched. County Engineer Rick West says keeping roads in good shape is a growing challenge.
West's conundrum is perhaps best explained by a couple of numbers. Funding for county road projects is expected to increase 15 percent over ten years. The cost of repairing roads is up 114 percent in the past three years.
"You hear the saying, 'Do more with less.' Well, we've been working that for a long time now," said West. "We're at the point where we're going to do less with less."
West says the county will need to spend most of its money on preservation. That means patching cracks and filling holes, instead of replacing road surfaces. But he says many of the county's roads are already past their expected lifespan and need to be replaced.
“A lot of those roads we have that are low volume, we probably can't afford to keep them in the condition they're in.”Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston
"If we don't have the resources, then some of our lower volume roads, should they go back to gravel?" West asked. "That's a tough question to put before the public, in particular the public that lives along those roads. That's not going to be very popular."
West says it's hard to plan ahead when costs and revenue are so uncertain. He expects less revenue will be collected from the gas tax as people switch to more efficient cars and drive less, and road construction costs are expected to continue a steep upward trend.
That convergence has many contractors worried. Tom Worke of the Minnesota chapter of the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota says asphalt, steel and fuel prices are so volatile, contractors are rolling the dice each time they bid for a job.
"If you bid a job in the spring, by the time you actually place the material in September you could see a 50 percent increase in the price of that product," Worke said. "If you are unable to absorb that increase, you are likely to go out of business."
Worke predicts contraction and consolidation will be a theme in the construction industry over the next couple of years. He says a number of small contractors have already been acquired by large out-of-state companies, and he expects that trend to accelerate.
Worke says the transportation funding package passed by the Minnesota Legislature last session is shrinking in real dollars available for construction. When gas tax revenues decline, there's less money than expected to spend on roads. If construction costs keep going up, the money won't go as far.
"The longer we wait to address this problem, the more expensive it's going to get," Worke said. "It will not get cheaper. It will continue to become a bigger and bigger snowball rolling downhill."
Policymakers are thinking about new ways to fund transportation. State Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, who chairs the House Transportation Finance Committee, says the gas tax is an outdated funding mechanism which needs to be replaced.
But Lieder says it's also time to consider some tough questions, such as whether Minnesota can afford all of its roads?
"There are going to have to be some choices made," Lieder said. "Unfortunately, sometimes part of the choice is made based on traffic volume. You don't have much alternative because the money just is not going to be there. A lot of those roads we have that are low volume, we probably can't afford to keep them in the condition they're in."
Lieder says he'd like to see a public debate about what kind of transportation system Minnesota needs.
He says the road system in many parts of the state was designed around an agrarian system of small farms. The rural population is now smaller and farms are much larger. Lieder says that means thousands of miles of road and hundreds of bridges are maintained, but little used.
Fewer cars are driving on many roads in rural Minnesota, as farms get bigger and populations shrink. But while some of those roads have less traffic, heavy truck traffic is increasing across the state.
Ottertail County Engineer Rick West says he's considered putting a thinner layer of asphalt on some roads to save money. That makes the road smooth, but not as strong. And that might create problems in the future.
West says a new ethanol plant just opened in the county, bringing thousands of truckloads of corn over the county highways to the plant. West says each truckload of corn is comparable to 9,000 cars driving on the road. So he says the county should be beefing up its roads, not just patching them.
Rick West says he's not sure what Ottertail County roads will look like in five years, but ultimately, it's up to taxpayers.
"If you want to maintain this as a public road and you want it to stay in reasonably good shape, here's what it's going to cost to do it," said West. "This is a question to the public. Are you willing to pay? Property tax, special use tax, are you willing to pay it?"
West says Ottertail County completed its five-year highway plan about 18 months ago. He says that plan is already outdated, and needs to be adjusted to reflect financial reality.