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$4 million for Piedra Road

If there were a motto for Archuleta County’s years-long endeavor to obtain funding to reconstruct Piedra Road, it would be, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” — a phrase often muttered by county staff.

Well, the squeaky wheel is set to be greased on the heels of a Monday announcement that $3.5 million will be delivered to Archuleta County for reconstruction of the road.

The money comes from Public Lands Highway (PLH) Discretionary funding, and is the full amount asked for by the county.

The announcement came after years of applications, letters of support and telling anyone in a position of power about the condition of Piedra Road (even taking some of those people for a ride on the road to experience the potholes).

The most recent application for funding for the road was submitted in December 2011, said County Administrator Greg Schulte, and county staff has been waiting since for word.

In addition to the $3.5 million, the county has pledged $500,000 from Road and Bridge funds to the project, making available $4 million to reconstruct the nearly 6.2 miles of road.

“I’m very excited about getting the grant for Piedra,” said Commissioner Clifford Lucero, pointing out the efforts of past and present commissioners. “Piedra Road is a very important part of Archuleta County’s infrastructure. The present commissioners and past commissioners, along with staff, have brought up the PLH funding at every meeting we’ve had with all congressional personnel and I do believe it helped.”

“We achieved success by partnering with other governmental agencies and demonstrating that the cost of the repair of Piedra should not be borne by the citizens of Archuleta County alone,” Commissioner Steve Wadley said, calling the grant a “homerun” and “microcosm of what should be going on nationally.”

“Although the collaboration is critical ... it does take a key figure to drive that process, and that was Greg,” Commissioner Michael Whiting said of Schulte.

“We’re very excited,” said Ken Feyen, public works director.

But, the work has only just begun for county staff members, who now have to filter through paperwork and an intergovernmental agreement with CDOT to finish the final design work for the road, bid out construction to a willing firm and begin construction, which is anticipated to take place next summer.

The road

Piedra Road is considered a federal forest highway, and is the most-traveled county road in Archuleta County, Schulte noted of the road that runs north from U.S. 160 at the top of Put Hill.

The project narrative submitted with the grant application states: “Approximately 348,000 acres of the San Juan National Forest, of which 100,000 acres are wilderness, are accessed via CR 600, FS 631 (Piedra Road). Piedra Road is the connecting link between US Hwy. 160 and this area of the San Juan National Forest and is the most heavily traveled route in the Pagosa Ranger District.”

The narrative continues to note that the road is the only connection the residents of southern Hinsdale County have to a full-service community.

The narrative estimates that 75,000-100,000 visitors per year use the road for recreational reasons.

In addition to recreation, the narrative notes grazing, timber, firewood gathering and biomass operations that take place within the San Juan National Forest.

With that heavy use, the condition of Piedra Road has deteriorated to the point that signs warning of permanent road damage have been installed.

“The existing pavement of Piedra Road shows signs of severe distress through alligator, longitudinal, and transverse cracking due to displacement and failure of the supporting subgrade material,” the project narrative states.

The narrative continues, “Due to the severe distress of the pavement, this project serves as a rehabilitation and repair, with improvements to safety. Also, due to the narrow lane width (10’ - 11’) and the narrow shoulders (1’ - 2’), the roadway offers little forgiveness to driver’s creeping outside the travel lanes.”

The narrative further notes the significant snowfall in the area as an added concern.

The project

Reconstruction of the road will begin at the cattle guard identifying the boundary of the county road and forest service road (where the pavement ends near Hatcher Lake) and work south towards U.S. 160.

Feyen said Tuesday that the plan will have the chosen firm mill up the existing pavement on the road, mix it with a soil stabilizer (such as concrete or lime) and relay it. Asphalt will then be laid over the top of the reclaimed pavement.

With the technique, Feyen estimated that cost per mile could land between $500,000 and $600,000, though that number is subject to several variations, such as oil prices when the project is put out to bid and other contractor costs.

According to the project narrative, work will include reconstructing the subgrade (as above), widening travel lanes to a uniform 12 feet and widening shoulders to a uniform four feet.

Throughout construction, traffic is anticipated to be affected, with that traffic likely diverted to North Pagosa Boulevard.

In anticipation of receiving funding and to help increase the chances of funding, Archuleta County has already completed right-of-way investigation and field location survey, topographic surveying and aerial mapping, environmental analysis, wetlands delineation, geotechnical investigation, utility identification and location and preliminary horizontal and vertical alignment design.

The funding

PLH funding is money available on a national level but, in the past, had been earmarked, Schulte said. When “earmarks” became a dirty word in politics, the pot of money was open to competition.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), under the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is responsible for administering the PLH funding.

When the funding was made available for competition, the FHWA directed state DOTs to submit projects for potential funding.

Nine states, including Colorado, are given preference when it comes to the funding due to the prevalence of federal public lands in the states.

In 2011, when competitive PLH funding opening, states were given only two days to submit projects, and the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), to meet deadlines, chose a project off its list of state projects.

That project ­­— a CDOT project working to improve the interchange at Mesa Verde National Park — was funded.

And although Piedra Road wasn’t chosen for funding in that first round of competition, Schulte said it was a mixed blessing — the funding wasn’t in the hands of Archuleta County, but a very competitive project was out of the way.

It also gave Archuleta County staff time to put together an application worthy of consideration.

Included with the application were letters of support from the Town of Pagosa Springs, Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation, Chamber of Commerce, Region 9, Hinsdale County, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, U.S. Forest Service Pagosa Ranger District, Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennett and Rep. Scott Tipton.

Schulte said he thinks the most compelling aspect of the application was the support and collaboration from the local level to the federal level.

“It’s important when you’re competing on a national basis for funding to show as much support as possible,” he said.

Without the funding, Schulte said it would take the county years to be able to save up enough funds for the reconstruction, at the cost of forsaking other road maintenance.

If the county performed no other road maintenance operations, Schulte said it would take a little over four years to save up enough funds for the project.

If the county applied magnesium chloride, but did no other maintenance or improvements, it would take seven years to save up the necessary funds.

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