County Preps New Dust Abatement Program for Next Summer

By Beacon Staff

With gravel roads at the center of a decade-long controversy in Flathead County, it stands to reason officials would welcome the winter snows that quell dust troubles. But this winter could pose its own set of problems for the roads department and, for a change, Public Works Director Dave Prunty is looking forward to summer.

“It’s the end of road dust season, and I’m already excited for the next one,” Prunty told commissioners recently. “It’s good to feel like we’ll be making new progress.”

There’s cause for Prunty’s optimism: The county commission set aside $100,000 in this fiscal year’s budget for a cost-sharing dust abatement program with county residents. As part of the joint effort, neighboring landowners would band together and pay for half the cost to place magnesium chloride – a dust palliative – on their road. The county then would use its equipment to prepare the road for application and pay the remaining half of the cost for a private company to apply the chemical.

Using magnesium chloride on one mile of road this past summer cost about $4,000, Prunty estimated, meaning the matching funds will treat about 50 miles of the county’s gravel roads.

Prunty said black oil – another popular palliative – is probably more effective than the magnesium chloride and often comes with a guarantee for free reapplication in the case it fails, but it costs about twice as much.

“Because of the high cost of oil, a lot more individuals in the county applied magnesium chloride this year than in the past, and I’ve gotten mostly positive reports,” Prunty said. “There are some tradeoffs, but overall, I think this is a good use of what money we have.”

Gallatin County has used a nearly identical program since 2000, also paying for half the cost of magnesium chloride but including the expense of its preparatory work into its share.

Their program has grown from one or two roads in its first year, to 34 participants and almost 30 miles of roadway this year, according to Erin Howard, office manager at Gallatin County’s road and bridge department. In 2006, the program’s highest-use year, almost 50 miles were treated.

“It’s very popular with a lot of people,” Howard said. “You can’t please everybody, all the time, and you have to be clear it’s not a dust eliminator – it helps reduce dust, but it’s not paving. But it’s still a very useful tool.”

At Roads Advisory Committee meetings here, some citizens have criticized the idea of cost-sharing programs, arguing that residents on paved roads don’t pay for overlays. Abatement programs, they say, still treat relatively few of the county’s approximately 700 miles of gravel roads. And when summer rolls around the next year, the palliative materials need to be reapplied and landowners must again come up with money.

The county plans to begin accepting applications from neighborhood groups this spring. Eligible roads would be at least a half-mile long, or include the entire road if it’s less than that length. If there are more projects than funding, the county will prioritize roads with the highest traffic counts.

Meanwhile, the roads department is busy preparing for what could be an unusually rough winter season.

“Any above average or even average winter, and it’s going to be tough on us,” Prunty told the commission. “We won’t have any extra employees – not even to cover sick time or vacation.”

Commissioners had expected to lose about $1.3 million in federal funds this year, which included $900,000 earmarked for the road department. But the U.S. House and Senate extended the timber provision program – which pays rural counties hurt by federal logging cutbacks – last month, when it included it in the financial bailout bill.

The county wasn’t pleased with the vehicle for the bill – “We’ve tried for two solid years to get this passed, and it’s sad that it’s cheapened by being tacked onto this bailout,” Commissioner Gary Hall said, though the county is more than happy to buoy the budget with the money.

But because the county had already tentatively budgeted the federal funds into this year’s budget, there isn’t a windfall for the cash-strapped department. The federal funds will, however, prevent further cuts. The roads department has already left 8.5 full-time positions open to reduce costs.

“If people are used to having their roads plowed by 4 a.m., they’re going to have to adjust to the plow not being there until maybe 6 a.m.,” Commissioner Dale Lauman said. “We’ll have fewer people covering the same ground.”