The spring and summer road work season has started and Columbia County Public Works crews have a number of priority areas for repair and maintenance.

County Road Work

The spring and summer road work in Columbia County Columbia County will include applying asphalt patches to several roads to address bad spots and improve driving conditions.

Columbia County Public Works Director Mike Russell said the priorities include Scappoose Vernonia Road milepost 4, the Vernonia slide area.

"In 2015 this area experienced a slide and this project will fix the area and provide new pavement and guardrail," he said.

County road maintenance crews also will be applying asphalt patches to several roads to address bad spots and improve driving conditions.

2021 patch paving

  • St. Helens Area: Hale Rd., Newkirk Rd., Dike Road.
  • Scappoose Vernonia Rd. Slide @ Bonnie Falls, EJ Smith Road.
  • Rainier Area: Nicolai Cutoff, Alston Mayger Rd., Tide Creek Rd., Meissner Road.
  • Vernonia Area: McDonald Rd., Apiary Road at Oak Ranch (bump)
  • Clatskanie Area: Cedar Grove Road.

Russel also outlined clear zone and routine maintenance in two locations.

· Scappoose Vernonia Rd. and Apiary Road Clear Zone Establishment – Columbia County received a transportation safety grant to re-establish clear areas alongside both these heavily travelled roads. The project involves mowing and vegetation removal for up to 18 feet from the edge of pavement on both sides of the road and updating curve signage. This is a multi-year project and was started at the beginning of 2021.

· Routine Road Maintenance – Columbia County Public Works crews will continue to respond to public maintenance requests and perform routine maintenance such as cleaning ditches, culvert maintenance, gravel road grading, pot hole patching, roadside herbicide spraying and mowing, and other activities.

Weather damage

This past fall and winter have been relatively mild compared to other years, according to Russell.

"Road maintenance crews were out several times to apply anti-icing solution, remove snow, and apply sanding material to major routes throughout the county," he said. "Fortunately, we had no major road failures or damage this year."

In the past, severe weather in Columbia County has triggered slides, flooding, downed trees, and pavement damage due to freeze/thaw.

The budget

To maintain the county roads, Russel said the budget for this summer’s work is approximately $2.2 million made up of around $1 million for the Scappoose Vernonia Slide project funded by Federal Highways Emergency Relief funding, $500,000 for the Scappoose Vernonia and Apiary Road Clear Zone project funded by a transportation safety grant from Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and approximately $700,000 for all other maintenance activities performed by the department.

The amount varies widely from year-to-year, according to Russell, depending on what grant funding the department is successful in obtaining for major improvements.

"For example, next summer we anticipate several more projects to be delivered related to storm damage experienced in 2015," he said. "These will be funded mainly by federal sources and the department has been saving up for these projects so that we can meet the money matching requirements, about 90% federal, 10% local. Next year’s project budget will be more like $4 million+ if all goes as planned."

Funding sources

The Columbia County Public Works Department receives most of its operating funds from the State Highway Motor Vehicle Tax Apportionment. The revenue is made up of the Oregon Gas Tax drivers pay at the gas pump, vehicle registration fees, large truck weight-mile fees, and other transportation revenue gathered by the State of Oregon.

That amounts to around $4 million to $5 million per year to Columbia County, according to Russell.

"This all goes to operations of the department and helps fund personnel, equipment, and materials needed to maintain all of Columbia County’s 550 road miles," he said.

Columbia County also has access to the Natural Resources Depletion Fee that charges gravel extraction operations $0.15 per ton of gravel removed. The county public works department manages the funding and works with quarry operators. Russell said this revenue source has been growing and is approximately $500,000 per year.

"Because of the way the department is funded, funding for major improvements costing millions of dollars usually has to come from grants and partnerships," Russell said. "We can also use revenue from Columbia County’s Transportation System Development Charge fund (SDC)."

As properties are developed in Columbia County, they are charged a System Development Fee when people apply for land development. Transportation SDC’s are charged to development to be used for capacity improvement needs created by increased usage of the system. According to Russell, the base fee is $2,250 and can go higher depending on the type of development.

To anyone concerned about the need for street and road repairs in their neighborhood that are under the Columbia County Public Works Department, Russell had this response.

"While $4 million to $5 million per year is a lot of money, taking care of 550 miles of roadways takes every bit of it and more, Russell said. "I want to assure everyone that Columbia County Public Works will continue to maintain our road system the best we can with the resources we have."

Committed agency

Russell said his agency is committed to providing safe roadways for citizens and will continue to address potholes, vegetation, and drainage issues to keep the road safe.

"But many road surfaces need much more than patch paving to make them last," Russel said. "Some roads are too far gone to simply pave over because the rock base is so bad that paving over it is like painting a house without scraping the old paint first. It's just going to start peeling off again right away. These roads need to be completely rebuilt from the base rock up."

Russell said to fix such a road, it can cost around $400,000 or more per mile. The county's entire pavement preservation budget for last year was $550,000.

"So, we will continue to respond to service requests for now and do our best to keep the roads safe," he said. "Until something drastically changes with our funding, we are limited in how much we can tackle each year."

Russell said he has been looking into different funding mechanisms for establishing more resources, such as raising fees, establishing a Columbia County vehicle registration fee, a Columbia County gas tax, and a bond levy are all potential ideas that are being reviewed.

"If people have other ideas that would result in a significant increase in resources available for roads in Columbia County, we are all ears," Russell said. "I see the need just as you do and am willing to work towards some permanent solutions."

The Chronicle also checked with ODOT's Lou Torres will tells us the state agency doesn't have any major projects planned in Columbia County, other than the current Millard and Bennett Road improvements.

"However, our maintenance folks will be active filling potholes, patching, striping, fixing guardrail, cleaning out culverts, trimming trees and brush, etc" Torres said. "It is The usual maintenance that we do each spring and summer."

To reach Columbia County Public Works, call 503-697-5090 or email publicworks@columbiacountyor.gov.

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