By Tiffeny Owens
The Cullman Times
Although Cullman County is second in the state for the number of road miles— just behind Jefferson County— it has just a quarter of its more populous neighbor’s road funding.
The county has nearly $7 million for roads in this year’s budget and around 1,800 miles of roadway, of which 1,425 are paved. Cullman has $2,065.64 of state funding for every mile, with nearly $3 million total, while Jefferson County gets $7,879.21 in state funding per mile and more than $16 million total.
That’s because Alabama distributes its gas tax revenue by county population, which leaves Cullman and its 80,000 residents with more roads than it has money to maintain. For comparison, Madison County, which is third in the state for the number of road miles, has 1,400 miles and receives $4,245.73 in state funding per mile. But Madison also has 304,307 residents.
“Our budget shrinks on both ends: we don’t get as much state funding because of our population and then counties don’t get funding from diesel sales which goes to the Alabama Department of Transportation’s budget,” said Commissioner Darrell Hicks. “We do the best with what we have.”
The county paves 80 miles annually with its funds, said Commission Chairman Kenneth Walker.
Three years ago, the newly elected commissioners agreed to combine its two road departments under one budget with the goal of streamlining operations and prioritizing road maintenance needs. The county engineering department works with the road department to evaluate which roads need the most work.
The quality of roads is the number one complaint commissioners said they hear from residents. Walker said many have approached him and told him they would boycott Cullman by buying their gas in other counties because their roads weren’t paved.
“People just don’t understand that the state splits the gas money up, and we have no control over it,” Walker said.
When considering which roads need repairs or paving, the county looks at how badly the surface is deteriorated, how heavily the road is traveled and the number of residents living there, Commissioner Stanley Yarbrough said.
Under the unified budget, the county has saved about $1 million annually over the past three years, Hicks said.
“We share personnel and equipment and eliminate the redundancies where we can which has worked well so far I think,” Yarbrough said.
But despite the savings, the county’s road funding continues to decrease while the cost of labor and materials rise, Hicks said.
“We’re on a tight budget,” Hicks said. “I hate to say this but the tornado recovery has helped our economy some, but we still haven’t fully recovered.”
That’s why the commission is pursuing federal funding though the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program, or ATRIP, and disaster assistance with a community development block grant.
ATRIP funds are a part of an 80/20 matching grant, meaning the 80 percent will come from state money, while the 20 percent portion will be paid for locally. Twenty-five million dollars in disaster funding will be distributed based on need to the six Alabama counties hit hardest by the deadly April 2011 storms: Cullman, Tuscaloosa, Jefferson, DeKalb, Franklin and Marion. No local funds will have to be provided if awarded.
County roads slated for ATRIP improvements include County Road 565 from County Road 490 to the Hanceville City Limits, County Road 747 from the Blount County line to County Road 1545, County Road 1101 from Lawrence County line to Highway 157, County Road 1223 from Alabama Highway 31 to County Road 1242, and County Road 1435 from Alabama Highway 157 to Morgan County line.
“I think in the near future we’re going to see more asphalt roads throughout the county, and our road department will be staying in the black each year,” Yarbrough said.
* Tiffeny Owens can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 135.