Dirt road paving moves slowly in Houston

WARNER ROBINS -- Sales tax dollars pay for many major road projects in Houston County, but the most important one to Battles Wilson is a road less traveled.

He lives on Wimberly Road, a dirt road near Haynesville. It is one of 12 dirt roads named for paving in the 2001 special purpose local option sales tax, and work is expected to start on it soon. It will not be too soon for Wilson, who has lived on the road for about 10 years. His two sons live in homes adjacent to his.

During heavy rains, he said, culverts back up and wash out the road in both directions from his driveway, leaving him trapped. That especially concerns him since his son had a stroke, and he worries about getting him out if an emergency arises.

“It will be a tremendous help,” he said of getting the road paved. “It will give the people that live here a better, healthy life and also make us a whole lot more friendly.”

While dirt road paving projects included in both the 2001 and 2006 SPLOSTs are little noticed by the general public, the travails of living on a dirt road make such projects vitally important to those residents.

However, progress on dirt road paving has been slow, largely because of a difference in how right of way is acquired in comparison with major widening projects.

Of the 12 dirt roads named for paving in the 2001 SPLOST, only seven have been completed. One is under construction, and work on Wimberly is expected to start soon. Three will likely not get paved because of problems in acquiring right of way, Houston County Director of Operations Robbie Dunbar said.

With major road projects, the county pays landowners fair market value for right of way needed for widening and has been able to do that without resorting to condemnation.

However, Dunbar said because of the limited funds for dirt-road paving, the projects are only done if all of the property owners donate the needed land. Generally, most are eager to do so. But some people prefer the peace and quiet of a dirt road, and some property owners may not live on the road and therefore don’t much care whether it gets paved.

The problem is that just one property owner can stop a project, and the county doesn’t resort to condemnation because then it would have to pay for the land. Dunbar said that wouldn’t be fair to the property owners who donated land.

“If we started paying for right of way, we would not have the money to build the road,” he said. “Some of the roads we’ve had to leave, it’s just been one property owner.”

The 2006 SPLOST included seven dirt roads for paving, but no work has started on those. Dunbar said the county wanted to finish the 2001 roads first. He expects within a year the county will start on the first 2006 road, which will be phase two of Toomer Road.

Unlike major road projects, which are bid out to contractors, the county does most of the dirt road work itself. The county surveys and designs the road, then does the grading and preparation. In some cases, the county does the paving itself, but often a contractor can do it more cheaply than the county, Dunbar said, so the paving part is usually bid out.

The county held a bid conference for Wimberly Road on Friday, and for the first time was seeking bids for a contractor to do the entire project. Dunbar said the county will evaluate the bids before determining whether to go that route, but if the bids are favorable, it could mean the county can speed up the paving.

The 2001 SPLOST included $3.3 million to pave 16 miles of roads, and the 2006 SPLOST included $2.4 million to pave nine miles. The new SPLOST approved in March did not include money for dirt roads.

The county currently has about 50 miles of dirt roads, nearly all in the southern part of the county.

Dunbar said he routinely gets calls from residents on the dirt roads asking about when the paving will start.

“When it gets wet several days in a row, or they slide into the ditch trying to get home, that’s when they get frustrated,” he said.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.