Ann Neuhierl shows an area of detiorating roadway in Villages at Ellington subdivision. The depth of the asphalt in this spot is less than the length of a dime. - Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith
COVINGTON -- Ann Neuhierl's neighborhood is less than a decade old. So she's upset that she has to drive around potholes and over cracked and sinking roadway to get to her house every day.
And she's not alone. One hundred residents of Villages at Ellington off Brown Bridge Road have signed a petition asking the Board of Commissioners to repair their roads. There are 124 homes in Villages at Elington and more than 700 in the three other subdivisions that make up the Ellington development - Springs at Ellington, and the two phases of the Silos of Ellington. Throughout all the subdivisions, "We've got roads that are absolutely disintegrating," Neuhierl said.
But there's no money in the county budget to fix the roads. The county did a small repair of potholes there last year at a cost of $30,000. But it would cost $750,000 to $1 million to make all the needed repairs, said Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan. Only $300,000 was allocated for road repairs county-wide in the current budget, and there is no money, aside from a county match to a state funded resurfacing program, for repairs in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2013.
Neuhierl said it's financially irresponsible for commissioners not to allocate more funds for road repairs, and she'd even be willing to pay higher property taxes to get some roads fixed. While lack of funding for road repair is a problem, there's another issue at play. A soil-cement base was used for roads in the Ellington development. This type of base generally doesn't last as long as the graded aggregate, or gravel, kind, according to District 2 Commissioner Lanier Sims, who owns and operates an excavating company that builds roads.
Essentially, the base is made by taking soil and mixing it with cement powder and water. Though the base is allowed under Newton County regulations, Morgan and Sims say that might need to change.
"It would suit me to drop this as an option from the county as a road base. We need the roads built to be in place at least 15 years. We can't come in and repair these roads every six to seven years," Morgan said. She acknowledged that the base is fine for roads with few houses and little traffic. But in the Ellington subdivisions, there's about 2,000 trips per day.
Sims said in his experience, the base just doesn't hold up well over time.
"Once the asphalt breaks up or cracks, water starts to get in and the soil-cement base starts tearing apart. I've seen roads where potholes are starting and there's nothing under there but Georgia red clay," he said.
Sims wants to look at the specifications used for road construction by other counties and study the longevity of a graded aggregate base versus soil-cement base. Both he and Morgan said they'd like to bring the matter before the Board of Commissioners this year.
"We want to be friendly to development, but at the same time, protect the county in the long run. If this is not protecting our county, we need to get away from it," Sims said, noting that Falcon Ridge subdivision off Smith Store Road is another example of soil-cement base roads that are failing.
Another option would be to require coring, or drilling into the road to make sure the proper depth of base and asphalt was applied, a practice that's currently not required. Sims said in that case, the developer would have to pay for an outside company to come in and do the testing. When repairs were made in Ellington last year, workers discovered asphalt in some spots was just a quarter-inch deep.
Improper application of a soil-cement base can also be a problem.
"If you do it in perfect conditions, it's a great base, a great foundation for a road," Morgan said. "If the applicator doesn't do a good job or there's too much humidity or they're not diligent in the way they do it, it creates problems for us. It doesn't hold up consistently."
County Engineer Tom Garrett said, "The soil-cement method takes a little finesse to get it just right. Aggregate base is a little more forgiving."
But, "I wouldn't say the problem is confined or limited to soil-cement," Garrett said, noting that roads are also failing that have an aggregate base. "There are better standards in the county now as far as asphalt standards, and I don't anticipate having those kinds of problems in the future."
Garrett said the Georgia Department of Transportation is now promoting a new base called full-depth reclamation, which was recently used on a joint county/city of Covington project on Avenue of Champions. That method entails using a soil-cement base that also includes ground up bits of the old roadway.
Sims said with the slow down of development, now is the time for commissioners to address the issue, before growth picks up again in the wake of the announcement that Baxter International is locating in Stanton Springs. He said he'd like local developers to be part of the conversation.
While the county needs to be development-friendly, "I'd hate to put in new subdivisions that in 10 years or less need a million dollars in repairs," he said.
Morgan said she proposed $4 million worth of road projects that could be done right away during discussions about the fiscal year 2013 budget. But to do all those repairs it would have necessitated raising the millage by 2 mils, and commissioners weren't willing to place that burden on taxpayers.
"It just really comes down to dollars and cents," she said, noting that the budget has shrunk by $10 million during her three and a half year tenure.
"In years past, I've heard citizens say they'd be willing to pay more taxes for public safety, or recreation or the library, whatever their interest is. But this year I'm hearing more about infrastructure. You can defer maintenance a little, but if you continue to defer maintenance, it has a major impact to the community."