DeWitt County struggles to fix roads damaged by shale truck traffic
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CUERO - Curtis Afflerbach's truck bumped and jostled down Cheapside Road while oil field trucks roared by, kicking up clouds of dust and broken bits of road in their wake.
"This is the busiest county road in town now, and it's falling apart. These roads just weren't meant to take this kind of traffic," Afflerbach, the DeWitt County Commissioner for Precinct 1, said. "This road is seven miles long, and it's bad all the way."
The Eagle Ford Shale play has meant an old-fashioned oil boom to those living in the counties above it, but the road to plenty isn't always a smooth one, especially when the roads being used were built more than 50 years ago.
DeWitt County roads were paved in the late 1950s, a layer of asphalt about an inch and a half thick. Since the Eagle Ford Shale has increased traffic, the county roads have broken to pieces, and county officials are trying to find the money to fix them.
DeWitt only collects revenue through property taxes, County Judge Daryl Fowler said. While some counties have seen an influx of funds through sales taxes, that extra money has not flowed into DeWitt because the county does not collect sales tax.
However, as one of the busiest parts of the play, trucks have been moving over the county roads, causing the old pavement to crack and crumble beneath the weight.
DeWitt was a rural county then, populated by farmers and ranchers who used the newly paved roads to take their crops into town and haul their cattle to market.
Even when Afflerbach was elected county commissioner eight years ago, the county was still better known for raising cattle than for oil.
"We weren't exactly bringing in the big tax dollars," Afflerbach said. "When I took this job, the roads were just like they'd been since the 1950s. They'd been patched but that was it."
When the Eagle Ford Shale boom began, most people were excited about the growth and the money that was flooding into the community. But in areas that had never seen this kind of oil and natural gas production, they weren't prepared for the havoc it would wreak on their roads.
It takes dozens of 18-wheeler trucks to bring in the rig and equipment needed to build and drill a well site. Until the pipelines have been laid, trucks are constantly rumbling along the county roads and the state highways to bring the oil and natural gas being produced to market.
With trucks weighing about 80,000 pounds each and thundering down roads built in the 1950s, maintenance is an issue for everyone, Texas Department of Transportation media spokeswoman Roman Hill said.
"The traffic we're seeing is unprecedented in this area," she said. "All of this activity is a great boon to the Texas economy, but we've got to find a solution."
They have reached out to local elected officials and private energy companies to form a task force focused on solving how to repair the roads, Hill said. The task force is the Energy Solutions Task Force, of which Fowler is a member.
"We're partnering with everyone we can to try to find a viable solution," Hill said "It's extremely expensive to maintain roads with daily damage."
Elected officials in DeWitt County are wrestling with the same problem on the county level. It costs about $60,000 on average to pave one mile of county road, Afflerbach said.
Of the 690 miles of county roads in DeWitt, 394 miles will have to be completely repaved, according to a study commissioned by the DeWitt County Commissioners Court earlier this year. The study, by Naismith Engineering, Inc., of Corpus Christi, estimated it will take about $432 million to replace the damaged roads through all of the county.
Some energy companies have stepped in and offered to help. The two companies with the most drilling in the area, Pioneer and BHP Billiton, donate $8,000 for each well drilled in the county to repair DeWitt County roads. Together, the two companies have donated more than $1.8 million thus far, Fowler said.
Other companies have donated road materials while others have agreed to rebuild the roads on their own, Afflerbach said.
The road damage is most severe where the drilling is heaviest. Afflerbach's precinct is the busiest part of the county.
Fowler is hoping to find a solution to their problem because right now, the county doesn't have the funding to repair all of the roads without going into debt, something the judge is determined to avoid.
"The oil industry is in a boom and bust cycle. There's not a way to control what it's going to do, we have to be cognizant of that," Fowler said. "The one thing I rule out is long-term debt."
The other option is to raise the property tax rate, Fowler said, another action he and Afflerbach wish to avoid.
However, Fowler is working with other elected officials to see if there is another solution to their problem. The state oil severance tax has gone directly to the state's Economic Stabilization Fund and the Permanent School Fund for decades. Fowler is lobbying to have the state legislature revise this so that some portion of the state oil tax revenue goes directly to the county where the oil was produced.
The state collected more than $57 million in taxes from DeWitt County production last year, Fowler said. If the state gave the county and the Texas Department of Transportation just a quarter of that money, they would have a way to repair their roads without going into debt or raising property taxes.
While he knows it doesn't seem feasible to raise $432 million, the suggested cost from the study, he does believe getting a percentage of the severance tax would go a long way toward funding the major road repairs needed in the county.
"With $7 million additional dollars in our county each year, our $75 million road problem would be solved in 10 years," he said.
Still, this possible solution will have to be approved by the state legislature, a process that could take years. In the meantime, Afflerbach and the other county officials continue work to keep the roads safe.
"People call very angry and frustrated and all I can tell them is, 'We'll get there as soon as we can," Afflerbach said. "We're constantly chasing our own tails. It's endless."
Road repairs are essential though, Afflerbach said. They have to keep working to repair the roads to allow residents, school buses and emergency vehicles to drive safely through the county.
Wayne Miller, a ranch foreman, lives in a small apartment on the edge of Cheapside Road. The road has fallen apart in the past few months, but that doesn't seem to slow the trucks and 18-wheelers that zip down it at a steady pace. The edges of the road went first, and as the pavement gave way, deep ruts have formed. Most trucks stick to the middle, where there is still a stretch of mostly driveable asphalt, but when two vehicles meet on the road, one has to move over to the side.
Miller said a truck was forced to move onto the side of the road and flipped when the tires dropped into a rut.
Miller has been run off the road when faced with an oncoming 18-wheeler barreling down the center of the road.
He is wary when he steers his truck onto the road, and Miller warns everyone he knows to be careful.
"It's dangerous," he said. "I know they're trying and that they can only do so much, but it's a miracle that people haven't been killed on this road."