Taking a look at Marion County roads

This low patch of road on 190th between Diamond and Eagle has been covered with rock by the county to help make it more drivable.Laura Fowler Paulus/Free Press
This low patch of road on 190th between Diamond and Eagle has been covered with rock by the county to help make it more drivable.Laura Fowler Paulus/Free Press
Marion County roads need work.

That’s the regular opinion community members express at Marion County Commission meetings as well as almost any gathering of farmers and others who live outside of town limits—particularly in Lehigh, Hillsboro and Marion.

But does that opinion hold true when put to the test?

The Free Press and its sister paper, Newton Now, took a look recently into trying to quantify exactly how local roads compare in neighboring counties. This will be a two-part series. This week we look at some of the numbers and how other counties do things and begin to look into Marion County. Next week, we will dive more into Marion County and the state of the roads.

Money makes a difference

Harvey County Road and Bridge Superintendent Jim Meier said he didn’t make it a point to police how other counties are maintaining their roads.

“But as you drive around [Harvey County], you see a noticeable change, or a noticeable difference,” he said. “But that sounds like I’m tooting my own horn. I can’t do anything without the money allotted for this.”

Meier gave commissioners a lot of credit for securing about $1.9 million annually for pavement improvements, and he gave residents credit for providing the revenue.

“Residents appreciate good infrastructure and enable us to do improvements,” he said.

Harvey County Commissioners approved a plan in 2013 to commit five mills of ad valorem taxes toward a seven-year rotation for road maintenance. Last week, the county approved soliciting bids for the resurfacing of 23.7 miles.

“The seven-year plan has worked out pretty good,” Commissioner Randy Hague said. “One of the better things we’ve done since I’ve been elected is getting started on that rotation.”

Commission Chairman George “Chip” Westfall said a similar plan existed in the early 1990s, when one mill was dedicated to maintaining 25 to 30 miles of road. Rising prices in materials, however, eventually reduced that maintenance plan to four or five miles a year. In 2013, commissioners diverted one mill from the county’s general fund and added an additional four mills for Meier’s new plan.

“We were making a long-term plan, and the roads needed it,” he said. “We had nobody protest it even, which was a surprise to us.”

Commissioner Ron Krehbiel said he heard some grumbling when the county raised the millage rate, but once the maintenance plan went into effect, he hasn’t heard many complaints since.

Meier said he developed the plan because pavement needs to be addressed every five to seven years due to the extremes in freezing and thawing caused by Kansas’s climate.

Different realities

Harvey County’s neighbors also face their own challenges for road maintenance as well as having things working in their favor. Marion County, for instance, is responsible for every mile of road, about 200 of which are paved, because it doesn’t operate under the township system, said Commission Chairman Kent Becker.

Tom Kramer, public works director for McPherson County, said his county was unique in that it had its own asphalt plant and paving machine. Those assets make resurfacing more cost-effective. The county spends about $1 million annually on resurfacing roads, and its dedicated chip-and-seal program covers 60 miles per year.

“There are so many influences on it, so it’s difficult to compare county to county,” he said.

Diamond Rd between 150th and 160th which is one of the roads sometimes complained about in Marion County. This picture was taken right after a storm and was difficult but passable when driven in a truck. Laura Fowler Paulus/Free Press
Diamond Rd between 150th and 160th which is one of the roads sometimes complained about in Marion County. This picture was taken right after a storm and was difficult but passable when driven in a truck. Laura Fowler Paulus/Free Press
Kramer said his department tried to resurface every mile of paved road or apply a chip and seal every four years. He said comparisons between two counties weren’t apt because each has its own rotation. Someone driving Old Highway 81 from Harvey into McPherson might notice a difference in the conditions based on which county resurfaced it most recently.

Anyone who travels between Marion County and McPherson County on US-56 can tell you the exact spot that one leaves either county and enters the other, as the asphalt is markedly different. McPherson just redid the stretch of the road from the county line into town. It is smooth. The Marion County side is different.

Size matters

Harvey’s small size, 541 square miles, and relatively large population, about 35,000 residents, works in its favor.

“Being the smallest in the region with a fairly large population, it gets the best of both worlds,” Kramer said.

Marion (12,000) and McPherson (29,000) are both larger than Harvey County size wise but have smaller populations. Butler County’s land area is larger than the State of Rhode Island. All counties have a larger number of paved miles than Newton.

Butler County, which is nearly three times as large as Harvey, covers 1,447 square miles, but it also has nearly twice the population. County Administrator William H. Johnson Jr. said his county was responsible for 357 miles of paved road, and it ranks fifth nationally for having the most bridges.

“None of us are close to spending what Sedgwick County does on its collector roads,” Johnson said. “But when you compare Harvey, Butler and Reno, they’re all similar.”

Local feedback in Harvey County

Hague said he rarely heard complaints about Harvey’s roads, except when potholes cropped up. Rather, he hears from a lot of people that Harvey’s roads are in better shape than its neighbors.

Westfall said complaints he heard were seasonal.

“If it’s good, dry weather, they’re happy until they get soggy and beat up,” he said.

Krehbiel said he typically heard more compliments than grousing.

The dynamic of compliments versus complaints commissioners receive could change this spring due to the high number of winter storms in recent months.

During his discussions among Kansas Association of Counties members, Westfall said road departments in every county are putting down material on roads and packing it in the best they could.

“Nobody can remember this severe of weather for a decade or more,” he said.

Meier said he never was ready to answer what kinds of questions he hears from residents.

“We do everything we can to make the infrastructure the best it can be for the money and resources we have available,” he said. “We don’t run it as a government agency, but we try to run it as a private agency. I don’t like a lot of down time. I like to stay busy, and I like the employees to stay busy. I’d like the public to know the great work ethic in this department, and I’m not talking about myself.”

Marion County

It seems that the upkeep and conditions of the roads, particularly the dirt and gravel roads, are a hot topic in just about any town you go to in Marion County, and the subject is frequently on the agenda for Marion County Commission meetings.

One Lehigh resident who is choosing to remain anonymous at this point for the articles (although they have spoken up at commission meetings) is frustrated that the roads continue to be an issue and promises to keep looking for answers.

“We pay our taxes like everyone else and deserve to have our roads in drivable conditions. It is important that we keeping taking pictures and noting the conditions and tell our commissioners that,” they said.

The resident does understand that there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle and it is difficult to stay on top of the problems that arise in the roads all over the county. And they see that not all of the blame lays solely on the county.

“There are some farmers who are choosing to farm in ways that are causing their soil to erode out into the roads. Even if the county did fix the road in some spots, it would just be ruined again unless farming is done better in some situations,” the resident said.

Check back with us next week for more information and to hear what the post office, other residents and county officials have to say about it all. – by Laura Fowler Paulus and Blake Spurney