Photo by John F. Russell
A sport utility vehicle makes its way along Routt County Road 14 on Monday morning. The Routt County Board of Commissioners is debating whether to spend $1 million to acquire a right of way along the road.
Steamboat Springs The issue began as a no-brainer. Routt County would apply for a $20 million grant available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to pay for its No. 1 road priority: a reconstruction of Routt County Road 14 from Colorado Highway 131 to Stagecoach State Park.
The waters have been muddied, however. Now, the Routt County Board of Commissioners must decide whether it can stomach fronting $1 million of its own money at a time when the county's road and bridge fund reserves are projected to run dry in less than a decade and declining revenues have forced painful pay cuts, furloughs and layoffs. The county didn't budget any money for C.R. 14 this year.
"We originally thought we wouldn't have to spend the money until we got the money," Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said.
The problem has arisen because of a provision in the $787 billion federal economic stimulus bill that requires money to be spent within three years of its enactment, by Feb. 17, 2012. Routt County wouldn't learn whether it won the grant until Feb. 17, 2010.
Although that leaves enough time to complete the two-summer construction project, Heather McLaughlin, a senior engineer in the Road and Bridge Department, said the deadline is impossible to meet unless 44 acres of right of way is acquired in advance.
Additional federal guidelines add more wrinkles. It is unclear what would be required of the project under the National Environmental Protection Act, and, in order to qualify, the county would have to use a federal process to acquire right of way from 46 property owners along the road. That process costs $300,000 more than the county's usual one.
"It is spending $300,000 for a chance of getting $20 million," County Manager Tom Sullivan told commissioners Monday.
The $1 million includes $675,000 to purchase about 44 acres from 46 property owners along the current route of the county road.
The commissioners are scheduled to consider a resolution to spend the money at 11:30 a.m. today, but Chairman Doug Monger said it probably would be tabled to allow county staff to gather more information.
The issue highlights one of Monger's frustrations with the federal economic stimulus bill - which he also expressed to Sen. Mark Udall's chief of staff earlier Monday - that the legislation "makes the process so hard that no one can comply."
"It's gambling," Monger said. "I'm going to tell you, I'm not going to vote for gambling $1 million dollars here."
Mitsch Bush said the gamble is a big one for reasons beyond the large number of dollars involved. She described the grant as "the most competitive : I've ever heard of. Everybody's infrastructure is going to hell."
Underlying the entire issue is the poor condition of the road, which Monger described as a wagon trail that got asphalt poured on top of it. While Monger said he'd prefer to spend money on asphalt overlays of the existing road rather than gamble it on the right of way acquisition, Mitsch Bush and Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak described that approach as a mere bandage.
"It cannot continue to exist in the condition it is in right now," Stahoviak said.
The right of way has to be acquired if the county ever wants to do the reconstruction project, and Mitsch Bush said now might be the cheapest time to purchase property.
"We're wrestling with it," Mitsch Bush said. "The road is literally falling apart."
The reconstruction project would widen the South Routt thoroughfare, which receives more traffic than any other county road, and also would add shoulders to it. It also would re-grade some of the hillier sections of the road and realign some of its sharpest turns.