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Boreal Community Media

COUNTY CONNECTIONS: Highway Department Levy Use and Infrastructure Status

Feb 05, 2021 09:14AM ● By Editor

By Cook County Highway Engineer Robbie Hass from Cook County MN - February 5, 2021


The Cook County Highway Department receives an annual allocation from the Cook County levy that funds a variety of operations. These include employee wages and benefits, maintenance activities on county roads, equipment repair and replacement, and local roadway projects.

For 2021, the highway department will receive a little over $2.3 million from the levy and a projected $130,000 in Superior National Forest funds. This $2.43 million will be split amongst the following: administration, levy-dependent maintenance, shop and non-reimbursable engineering expenses, and heavy equipment replacement and local road projects.

Administration expenses include office salaries and benefits; engineering technician training and travel; and day-to-day office supplies/expenses.  Levy-dependent maintenance expenses include wages, benefits, and all materials and supplies needed for the maintenance of county roads 24 through 103, along with any spillover expenses from our County State Aid Highway routes. Shop expenses include wages and benefits; equipment and property insurance; and utilities, fuel, parts and supplies.  As the majority of engineering technicians’ wages are charged to projects, non-reimbursable engineering expenses are minimal.

Once funding is allocated to administration ($380,487), levy-dependent maintenance expenses ($825,308), shop ($784,608) and non-reimbursed engineering expenses ($80,000), $359,847 remains for equipment replacement and local road projects –  assuming that the level of service does not change throughout the county, i.e., calcium chloride application, plow times, road graveling and grading, etc. 

We have been talking with administration at length about the status of our infrastructure. Of Cook County’s 58 bridges, 26 are levy dependent, meaning money from the Cook County levy is the primary funding source for replacing these structures. Of the 26 levy dependent bridges, 11 are considered structurally deficient. This equates to about a quarter of the bridges in Cook County being a safety hazard.

How does this compare to the rest of the state? In Minnesota, the local bridge system (bridges owned by counties) is 7.3 percent structurally deficient. Compared to other small population counties in the state, we have the worst deficiencies by far. For example, Kittson County has over 200 bridges and only six are considered deficient. That’s about three percent, compared to almost 25 percent in Cook County. Lake of the Woods and Traverse counties both have over double our bridges and each have only 2-3% deficiencies.

Most of our levy-dependent bridges are culverts spanning over 10 feet, which cost an average of $350,000 to $400,000 to replace. Other structures, like timber bridges, prestressed concrete beams and steel beams, cost even more.

Our gravel roads are also in need of repair and reconstruction. As traffic volumes increase, these roads require more maintenance. As we discuss long-term strategy, whether reconstructing these roads to a 7-, 9- or 10-ton standard or paving them, we must include them in our plans. We are actively seeking alternative funding sources via grant programs, but there are no guarantees: our Transportation Sales Tax revenue is tied up in bond payments for the next 10 to 15 years, and the new town bridge/road account won’t fund an entire project each year.

And we face similar concerns with equipment replacement: the equipment purchased for the highway department was done in a short time in the early 2010s under an equipment replacement policy that the county could not maintain. Accordingly, we have been working on a revised plan.

Under our draft plan, plow trucks and graders would have a 10- to 14-year life; pick-ups, 15 to 20 years; and our heavy equipment, 30 years. On average, this would cost $415,000 to $500,000 per year, far less than the $638,00 to $850,000 under the former plan. Whatever the board approves, the final plan will consider the age of the unit as well as its condition: there’s no reason to replace a piece of equipment that is functioning at a reliable and safe level, but its eventual replacement still needs to be budgeted.

Ignoring our infrastructure status could result in the state stepping in and closing roads – and this risk is on top of the obvious safety hazard these deficient structures pose to county residents. Ignoring responsible equipment replacement could result in large spending spikes as well as unsafe and unreliable equipment. 

We are working diligently with our advisory committees and board to analyze our current situation and develop a long term and sustainable plan for decades to come. Stay tuned….


County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service.