By JESSE BURKHARDT
A portion of Oak Ridge Road in Husum has been on Klickitat County's "six-year road program" for 11 years, but 2011 may finally be its year.
According to Gordon Kelsey, director of the Klickitat County Public Works Department, the Oak Ridge Road project tentatively calls for a 1.7-mile segment to be paved -- from MP 0.44 to MP 2.19.
However, controversy over the paving project developed after Oak Ridge Road resident Dennis White charged that the road was in line to be paved due to requests from what White characterized as "special interests.
"Spending $1.4 million-$2 million to pave a short stretch of a road that is adequately meeting the basic needs of its users is foolhardy and nothing more than a blatant subsidy for special interests," White explained.
White also said he was concerned that more than 1.7 miles of Oak Ridge Road might be paved.
In a Nov. 4 e-mail to residents living along Oak Ridge Road, White blasted the County Commissioners and other county officials for pushing the project forward.
"It appears the good ol' boy system is still well entrenched in Klickitat County," White charged. "I'm concerned that duplicity may have extended to the county Public Works Department as well. The current six-year road plan lists Oak Ridge Road to be paved 1.7 miles, beginning at the current pavement northward for a cost of $1.4 million. We know that this summer the county surveyors did the preliminary work all the way to Ridge View Road, 0.8 miles farther. I believe the Road Department intended to pave to Ridge View Road, a distance of 2.5 miles. If Public Works has misrepresented this project, are the commissioners complicit, or are they asleep at the wheel?"
Kelsey dismissed that idea.
"There is no plan or money to go beyond the 1.7 miles in the next six years," he said.
Kelsey added that it is common for road paving projects to get different reactions from those who will be impacted.
"There are people for the project and people opposed to it. All have different reasons for that," Kelsey said.
Kelsey explained that the Road Department looks at a number of different factors in determining which roads to put on the list for improvements -- including the number of collisions on a particular road, safety considerations, obstacles along a given road, whether a road is a school bus route, whether there is grant funding for a particular project, traffic volumes, and citizen input.
"We try to balance our program between neighborhood roads and access roads. If we only served those roads with the largest volumes of traffic, we'd never get to the other roads," Kelsey added.
County Commissioner Rex Johnston said he was upset with White's allegations.
"Just because anyone asks us to pave a road -- which no one has in this case -- we don't just go and pave the road. It doesn't work that way," Johnston said. "We use formulas. In all cases it has to do with the amount of traffic and safety, such as for school buses on it or access for fire trucks. That's the type of thing taken into account. That's how we truly decide it."
Johnston added that the County Commissioners have not made a decision yet on whether Oak Ridge Road will be budgeted for paving in 2011, "but we will make a decision based on the facts," he added.
"The Board of County Commissioners ultimately decides," Kelsey pointed out. "The plan for Oak Ridge Road has not been approved yet."
White said he did not understand why the county would earmark more than a million dollars to pave a quiet, little-used gravel roadway.
"Only six residences occur along the unpaved segment, and all but one have signed a petition opposing paving," White explained. "Except for local residents, some hunters, and a few farm/forest workers, the road has very low vehicular use -- maybe 10-15 vehicles a day. Given local opposition to paving, and the existing quality and character of the road, why do our commissioners want to spend $1.5-$2.0 million of our tax dollars on this project? I'm concerned that special interest politics are at play. One can only speculate that this project is a political favor to absentee landowners with development in mind."
Johnston rejected White's assertions.
"Basically what aggravates me is, that kind of talk leads people to believe county officials are corrupt, and that upsets me; that's not the case," Johnston said. "It's not beneficial to get that kind of thing going in a little county like this, to sow seeds of distrust for county officials. We're all trying to do a good job for the people of this county. We try to do our best. We run according to the rules."
Jim Tindall, a resident of Oak Ridge Road and a member of the Husum-BZ Corner Community Council, said this might be a time for the county to be frugal with its funds.
"Personally, I am content with the gravel surface," Tindall said. "While it's certainly dusty, it keeps road speeds down, and the curvy course is safer in the icy winter weather. I am all in favor of county government being frugal, and canceling this project is certainly one easy way to save large amounts of money for county agencies like Senior Services and the Sheriff's Office."
County Commissioner David Sauter said the Oak Ridge project could be shelved.
"One of the big factors for me is the budget and economics of it. We may need to spend that money on infrastructure somewhere else. There may be bigger priorities," Sauter explained. "We have until Dec. 31 this year to decide. Is it a top priority? We're going to look really closely at it. If we can't justify it, we won't do it."