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Road projects ongoing in county

Ken Atkins has been the county engineer for the last seven years, before which he was the assistant for six years. Atkins recently sat down with The Times to discuss what the county engineer&8217;s office does and how different projects, such as road projects, are prioritized.

Q: What is your department responsible for?

A: Road maintenance, cutting the grass, cutting the limbs back and trying to maintain what we already have. We also work on bridges and any thing that the county commission approves. Like right now we are working on a walking trail in Thomaston. They received a grant for it, and we&8217;re going to do the engineering work on it.

Q: How many miles of road does the county maintain?

A: We have approximately 340 miles of paved roads and 300 miles of dirt roads.

Q: How has that changed over the years?

A:When I first started we paved approximately five or six one-mile stretches. We took some of our funds and rotated it every year. We&8217;re lucky now if we can take the funds we have and make it through the year. We work off gas taxes, and user fees. As gas prices are going up, people are spending less money at the pump.

Q: One of the most recent road projects was the repaving of County Road 19. Can you tell me about the county&8217;s involvement with that project?

A: We get $500,000 a year in federal funds, which is an 80/20 split. So that is $100,000 of our money. You can replace any bridge or it can be used on what we call federal aid routes. Our federal aid routes are County Roads 19, 16, 7, 20, 53, 30 and 44.

Q: What does the term &8220;federal aid route&8221; mean?

A: Those are the only roads we can use those funds to resurface. They fit into the category of being a major collector, which is based on traffic counts.

Q: How does the federal money process work?

A: They allocate $500,000 each October and you have until the next May to have a set of plans for it. We have to do the plans, paper work and go through the highway department in Montgomery. The federal government then looks at the plans and approves it.

Q: How long does it take to see a major project like County Road 19 come to fruition?

A: Rangeline Road was a $1 million project. We actually had to save up money for two years just to get that stretch done. By the time you send letters out back and forth and get the paperwork done, then it takes a month to two months. But for a bridge set, it is a lot longer. It can take anywhere from eight to 10 to 12 months.

Q: I understand you do a lot of the plan work in house, is that common for counties of our size?

A: No. Most everyone I know uses consultants. Five or six years ago, they came out with a bond issue. And doing everything in house, I feel like we save $200,000 that we were then able to apply down the road on other projects. I&8217;m very fortunate to have a good staff.

Q: Recently, the French Creek area received a grant to do some roadwork. How will your department be involved with that project?

A: We have to do the plans for it and we will actually do the inspection. Basically the city of Demopolis will pay anything over and above what the state allowed for it. That money was basically Commissioner (Freddie) Armstead going out and getting it. That is a rare occurrence to get those funds.

Q: French Creek was annexed into the City of Demopolis, so does that mean the county can work on the roads there?

A: We can do work inside the city limits at the city&8217;s request.

Q: When unexpected funds become available, does that benefit the county&8217;s ability to maintain its roads?

A: Yes. We would never have the funds to put that kind of money up there. We&8217;ve gone a couple years now without doing any resurfacing. As fuel prices go up our revenue goes down and asphalt prices are going up as well, because asphalt is a byproduct of petroleum.

Q: How does your department prioritize different projects?

A: We do it on a need-based system. Every spring we have to ride with the highway department out of Grove Hill, our liaison, and we actually grade any road that has had federal or state money put into it. Anything below a 70 or 75 grade is failing, and if you get anything below a 70 for three years in a row they will pull your federal funding. Since I&8217;ve been here, we&8217;ve been fortunate enough not to have any of them get below 75.