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September 11, 2008 3:45 am

Failure to maintain lanes

Written by Tribune Staff

High oil prices wreaking havoc on road maintenance

Sky-high oil prices have all but put a halt to road maintenance.

If prices don't drop, roads in the Powell area stand to fall into disrepair.

Typically, Park County chip-seals 60 miles of roadways each year. This summer, the county road and bridge department has sealed exactly zero.

“We can't afford to,” said county engineer Dave Kieper.

In the state's northwest transportation district, which includes parts of Teton, Big Horn, Washakie, Natrona, Fremont, Hot Springs, and Park counties, the Wyoming Department of Transportation normally chip seals 100 to 125 miles of road. This year the state isn't chip sealing either.

“It's a struggle,” said WYDOT spokesman Cody Beers. “No doubt about it.”

The cost of chip oil — the sticky stuff used to seal roadways and make the chips stick — has rocketed at a rate that almost defies belief.

For the 2008 fiscal year, the county spent $310 a ton.

Expecting a hefty increase, Kieper budgeted $550 a ton for this year.

But he “hadn't any more than hit the send button” on his budget, when he learned prices were up to $760 a ton.

Not long after that, as though that was a bargain, Kieper received word that chip oil was no longer available.

One problem is that SemMaterials of Billings, the chip-oil supplier for the county and many other construction groups, is bankrupt. But it's not just SemMaterials that couldn't provide chip oil. Beers said that refineries all over the country are producing less and less road oils and instead are using as much oil as they can to make gasoline.

“I called all over,” Kieper said. He tried places from Idaho to Colorado with no luck.

Then, last month, Kieper said he spoke to a supplier who said he could get the county some oil for $1,000 a ton out of Denver.

“We passed on it,” Kieper said.

The county's plan is to wait until next spring and hope prices come down.

Things could get dicey if they stay up.

Without regular sealing — typically every eight years or so — roads can fall into rough shape.

“If we don't get (chip) oil this next year, we're really going to notice some deterioration in our chip-sealed roads,” Kieper said.

Wyoming's transportation department is in the same boat.

WYDOT currently is putting together next year's budget — the department's next fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

The entire process has been thrown into chaos by rising prices.

“Every planning document we stamp now is marked ‘Draft,'” Beers said.

The department now must use escalating contracts where contractors can pass along increased materials costs. Otherwise, Beers said, the state would never get any work done.

The department plans to budget some sealing and other road maintenance next year, “but not nearly as much as we need to,” Beers said.

“We're looking to make some pretty drastic cuts.”

He said that doesn't bode well for Wyoming's infrastructure.

“It's a decision that will affect us down the road when our roads start falling apart,” he said.

Even if prices fall, the road work skipped this year still must be done.

Of course, as drivers in Powell and Clark have probably noticed, some work is still getting completed. This summer, WYDOT undertook chip-sealing projects on the Elk Basin Highway north of Powell and near the Edleweiss restaurant outside Clark.

However, those projects were not part of the general WYDOT budget — they were only completed because of special highway funding from the state legislature.

The city of Powell did its usual amount of road work this year using slurry sealing. Slurry sealing is faster-drying and longer-lasting than traditional chip sealing — and it's even more expensive.

So the obvious question is, how was the city able to afford it?

Streets Superintendent Gary Butts said the city opened bidding back in April — as soon as it possibly could.

The city's contractor, Intermountain Slurry Seal of Utah, was able to beat the price spike.

“They had already made the contract (for the road oil) before the market went out of sight,” Butts said. “It worked out great for the city of Powell.”

But Butts said that if prices don't drop by bidding time next year, the city will find itself in the same position as the county and state — holding off on road work until it's more affordable.

The good news is that the absence of chip sealing has freed up time. The county would have spent two to three weeks doing that work. Instead, the county has been able to put down more gravel and apply more magnesium chloride — stuff used to suppress dust on roadways.

Still, Kieper describes the overall situation discouraging, and calls the dramatic price increase “unheard of.”

“You just think something's wrong,” he said.