EDITOR’S NOTE: The LaFollette Press asked its more than 1,800 Facebook fans to identify the worst road conditions in Campbell County. Your responses were overwhelming. From Elkins Road; to Highway 229 in Jellico; to Stinking Creek Road near Interstate 75 exit 144; to parts of Demory Road — dozens complained about potholes, cracks and unsafe conditions along corridors in the county. It’s not just a problem unique to Campbell County. In Tennessee alone, there are 93,251 miles of public roads and 38 percent fail to meet adequate standards, according to a recent report issued by automobile club AAA. This report takes a closer look at a growing problem and aims to provide a solution to the county’s cracked infrastructure. (Spoiler alert: It involves higher taxes.)
— Brent Schanding, editor, LaFollette Press
A drive along Campbell County’s highways, roads and side streets reveals the severity of the situation.
Cracks. Crumbling shoulders. And potholes as wide as two feet in diameter in some places. Roads and bridges across the county are failing because of old age, insufficient maintenance and higher volumes of traffic.
Periodic patchworks aren’t solving the problems.
Commuter Monica Spiess asked if it would save time and money to completely repave all the roads at once — instead of just temporarily patching potholes.
It’s a fair question. But time and money aren’t commodities in the county these days, say local officials.
Spiess was one of many who posted comments on social media earlier this week, when the LaFollette Press broached the subject of the county’s infrastructure problems.
Here’s a sampling of what Facebook followers identified as the county’s most crippled corridors:
“Stinking Creek Road off exit 144 coming down the creek is like driving on a washboard,” Derrick-Sibyl Goins posted. “I think the last time it was paved was in the late 80s.”
“Ivy Hollow is nothing but pot holes,” Lisa Sanders posted. “The county has repaired them. But it needs to be repaved.”
“Try driving Duff/Davis Creek Road from [U.S.] 25W to the White Oak Community twice a day, 6-7 days a week,” posted Amanda Brooks Hatfield. “By far the worst road I’ve ever drove on.”
“Lake road in Vasper!!!” wrote Josh Whaley.
The problems aren’t just isolated to the county’s rural areas.
Interstate 75 came through Campbell County in 1968 and despite several improvements since then, sections of the federally-funded highway have outlived its effective lifespan. The site of last spring’s rockslide that closed I-75 between Stinking Creek Road and Tenn. 63 for several months already appears to be sinking, according to motorists who frequent that area.
Campbell County commuter Cindy Lowe reports I-75 north is also in poor condition between Clinton and Jacksboro.
U.S. 25W, the main corridor through Campbell County, is often congested with traffic. When schools are in session, commuters often come to standstills near the sites along the highway, requiring assistance from traffic directors.
It’s largely because the highway was never actually designed to accommodate the volume of traffic it handles today. Lack of planning and zoning has dotted the corridor with access issues and other problems.
The American Society of Civil Engineers reports that 32 percent of the nation’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition. Nearly 25 percent of bridges are rated as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
Drivers can expect even more potholes, longer commutes and hazardous conditions, if the problems aren’t fixed.
“We pay so much in taxes and can’t even have smooth roads to drive on!” wrote Mandi Kristen Wilson on Facebook. “It’s ridiculous.”
Comments such as Wilson’s aren’t new to Campbell County Road Superintendent, Dennis Potter, whose department oversees 872 roads — or 684 miles of county-maintained roadways.
“If I had the money, I’d pave every road in the county. I’d put them on a list and resurface them every 15 years,” the average lifespan of a road, he said.
But at that rate, the county would have to pave more than 40 miles of roads each year.
Last year, it paved just 7.5 miles of road.
“We’re not laying enough asphalt. I know that,” Potter said. “Some people think I have a blank check to fix every problem — we don’t.”
The road department is limited to about $550,000 in paving funds each year. That money is largely generated by gasoline taxes and comes from both county and state funding sources. Just 7.5 cents of every tax dollar goes to the road department — a fraction of what other departments receive, Potter said.
“When paving costs you about $75,000 a mile, you’re not going to do much with that money,” he said.
If you’re wondering when your particular road is going to be paved, that remains unclear. There’s no master list for paving plans, Potter said. Priorities are considered annually based on needs and budget limitations.
The plethora of potholes, bumpy roads, and poor driving conditions aren’t just a pain for county coffers either— they can cost motorists hundreds of dollars a year in additional repairs and operating costs.
“My husband and I started to the V.A. hospital in Lexington (Ky.) at 5 a.m. one morning,” driver Teresa Ray told The Press. “We hit a pot hole that burst two tires and bent a wheel and broke the sensor on the inside of the wheel.”
Ray said the repairs set her back $1,077.
Poor roadways also cost in other ways. The annual societal cost of traffic crashes is $299.5 billion, according to a recently released AAA study, which does not even measure the true human and emotional price arising from more than 30,000 traffic deaths last year. Many crashes are attributed to unsafe conditions such as inadequate lighting, poor signage and outdated road design.
Potter said his department is only allocated about $9,000 to fix and replace defaced or stolen signs, but the department could spend in excess of 10 times that, he believes, to fully solve those problems.
Despite those already troubling statistics, Tennessee may become worse in the years ahead because the Federal Highway Trust Fund that pays for maintenance and improvements may go bankrupt as soon as 2015.
If this happens, it would result in Tennessee losing out on significant funding needed to fix roads, minimize traffic jams, and improve safety.
In addition to roads, local railroad infrastructure is also crumbling. CSX and Norfolk Southern rails help transport cargo along several hundred miles of rails in Campbell County.
“The railroad was crucial to the beginning of our city,” said Troy Davis, a Campbell County native who recently submitted a photo of a crumbling rail bridge near the Ivydell trailhead, just outside of LaFollette near Big Gap Creek. “That railroad bridge was built there as a way to move the coal, coke and lumber to the industrial north.”
Davis said he was amazed to see it in such poor conditions.
“It looks like it’s ready to crumble,” said Davis. “You think they would inspect things like that.”
The quality of Infrastructure is often considered by prospective industries and businesses looking to relocate here, said E.L. Morton, executive director for the Campbell County Chamber of Commerce.
“Most prospects screen us before we ever know it,” Morton said.
Statistics and data on roads and rails are readily available through various sources. If the county doesn’t meet certain industry specifications for a manufacturer’s needs, the area is quickly dismissed from consideration.
“Transportation access is always important, rail as much as interstate and we have both — and a really good, small airport,” Morton said.
So, what’s the cure for the crippled infrastructure?
It depends on whom you ask.
“You’ve got to decrease your expenses or increase your revenue to do anything about the roads,” said Campbell County Mayor William Baird.
That means slashing more expenses in the already ailing road department — which has seen 11 cuts to staff through recent years.
Or this: An injection of taxpayer cash.
But that doesn’t seem likely because of great resistance from local taxpayers to pay more to support failing infrastructure.
“We tried twice to increase the local option sales tax by half a cent,” said Baird. “[Both times] It failed miserably.”
In addition to providing additional revenue for schools, the proposed tax would’ve provided an additional $800,000 to the county’s road fund for paving and other projects, Baird said.
But Potter contends additional money can still be allocated for road repairs — without tax hikes — if county commissioners just prioritized the public’s needs.
“I think there’s some adjustments that can be made in the county budget.” said Potter, who classified three essential needs for the county: Schools, police protection and roads.
“Other things are wants, those things are needs,” Potter said.
Baird said commissioners previously considered taxing those who haul heavy boats, ATV and equipment on county roadways. Those motorists place among the most heavy strains on infrastructure.
But local support for the measure seems unlikely and it would likely require consent from state agencies.
While relief for the county’s road rage doesn’t seem likely anytime soon, we can only suggest motorists be prepared for another bumpy summer — and invest in better cup holders to minimize spills on their morning commutes.