Funding increases for county roads have failed six times

Fixing roads in Stutsman County has reached a crescendo, which has culminated in measures on the November ballot to shift more of the county's funds to construction and to form a committee that would make recommendations on roads to repair.

John M. Steiner / The Sun A pothole in the middle of Stutsman County Road 37 is growing across the pavement just east of Montpelier, N.D.

Fixing roads in Stutsman County has reached a crescendo, which has culminated in measures on the November ballot to shift more of the county's funds to construction and to form a committee that would make recommendations on roads to repair.

While the debate goes on, some history on Stutsman County roads may explain a few of the issues. Paving county roads designated as farm-to-market began in the early 1970s, when voters passed a 5-mill levy to match available federal highway funds. Jerry Brickner was an engineer with local contractor Everett and Associates during those years. He arrived here in 1958 and, he said, there were no paved county roads then.

"Most of the roads were mucker roads," Brickner said. "A mucker pulled up dirt and whatever else from what was going to be the ditch and cast it up in the middle for the roadbed."

So under the first roads in the county were fence posts, trees, straw bales and plenty of black dirt. Eventually those dirt roads evolved into gravel and then in the '70s many were paved with asphalt.

"There was a 15-year plan to pave all the roads, but they only paved about half of them, thank God," said Mark Klose, County Commission chairman.


What those early commissioners did not foresee was the changes in technology that would increase volume and loads on the paved roads, Brickner said. From 2-ton farms trucks, equipment grew in size and weight to eventually reach 80,000 or more pounds rumbling down the road in each truck.

By the time he was elected in 1984, Klose said, the County Commission was wondering how it could afford to take care of the paved roads it had.

"We were running out of revenue to sustain the system," Klose said. "We weren't talking about new pavement, we were just talking about maintaining what we had."

The commission organized a road committee of rural community members to look at options and costs. In 1988 the commission went to the voters for a 5-mill increase. It failed.

Meanwhile, federal standards were getting higher and stricter. And costs for upgrading the paved roads began to climb. The commission tried a mill levy increase again in 1992. Again it failed.

By 1992, the roads paved in the 1970s were moving past their useful life. Underneath many of those paved roads the subgrade of mucker dirt and organic material was decomposing. The stress of heavier equipment was also beginning to show as the strength of the subgrade gave way.

The final blow to the county's paved roads started in 1993 when the drought ended. Stutsman County Emergency Manager Jerry Bergquist said 25 inches of rain in July caused flooding throughout the county. The wet cycle had begun and the first of 15 presidential disaster declarations.

Rather than maintenance, the county has been spending money on grade raises to get roads out of the water. Although FEMA has contributed funding for the work, the county has had to add its match. In many places, Brickner and Klose said those grade raises have been done more than once or twice. And sloughs lap up against many other county roads.


"The high water tables have softened the subgrades," said Brickner, who was county engineer from 1997-2007. "Every time you bring water up to the road, it saturates the subgrade."

At this point, one county road is still waiting for its grade raises. The Cleveland-to-Gackle road project is estimated at $5 million.

"Our share is $1 million," Klose said.

But first the county needs to find wetlands to mitigate the loss of acreage for proposed grade raises at four sites along the road. It's required for any road construction project -- emergency or not.

"We've had to find mitigated land for all the grade raises we've done over the years," Klose said. "We've used up all the mitigated property we had in our bank."

It's just one of the requirements in the use of any federal money and part of the reason road construction runs close to $1 million a mile. Another is preserving archeological resources. They join other federal specifications for construction, whether it's FEMA or federal highway funds.

"In order to do the job you have to do it their way," Brickner said.

Weighed down with nearly annual emergency repairs and escalating construction costs, the commission went back to the voters in 2004, 2008 and 2010 for mill levy increases and/or sales tax funding. Each time, the voters said no.


"We've gone to the voters six times," Klose said.

Far from just maintaining county roads these days, Klose said, the commission is focused on saving important roads. Along with the Cleveland-to-Gackle road, the road connecting Woodworth and Medina is on the list for construction, with a price tag of up to $18 million. The county's share would be approximately 50 percent. Both are the only highways in those areas of Stutsman County with access to Interstate 94.

"Using information from the matrix, those two are the next scheduled," Klose said. "We have $3 (million) or $4 million for construction -- that's if we have no emergencies."

Sun reporter Toni Pirkl can be reached at (701) 952-8453 or by e-mail at

What To Read Next
Get Local