Road repair budget doesn't keep up

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Fifteen years ago, asphalt cost less and Tupelo had fewer four-and-five-lane roads to maintain, but the city spent more on street overlay in 1998 than it did this year or will next year. In the meantime, many of Tupelo’s streets have deteriorated and need fresh layers of asphalt to continue carrying traffic.
In Fiscal Year 1998, Tupelo spent nearly $1.2 million overlaying its roads. This fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, it will have spent an estimated $955,000. Next year it plans to spend just $800,000, according to the budget adopted last week by the City Council.
That’s one-third less than in 1998 even though asphalt now costs three times more.
“In the last 15 years it has tripled in price,” said Tone “Tony” Garrett, senior executive director of the Mississippi Asphalt Pavement Association. “Of course, so has Coca-Cola, so have eggs and so has milk.”
Asphalt cost about $100 per ton last year, Garrett said. Fifteen years ago it was about $33 per ton.
Council members recently lamented Tupelo’s budget for street overlay, calling it inadequate and arguing in favor of an increase.
“Eight hundred thousand dollars for a city this size and we haven’t increased it in years is embarrassing,” said council President Fred Pitts of Ward 2 during a budget hearing last week at City Hall.
“We’ve got money in our rainy day fund,” he added. “I can’t believe anybody in Tupelo would object to us taking care of streets, because I can assure you every ward in here has problems.”
Tupelo’s Public Works Department overlays about 20-25 streets annually, but that number varies. Longer, wider streets require more asphalt and thus reduce the number of other streets the department can overlay.
Thanks in part to the Major Thoroughfare Program, the number of long, wide streets in Tupelo has increased during the past two decades: Two-lane Gloster Street became a five-lane; so did Main Street, Eason Boulevard, Cliff Gookin Boulevard and Coley Road.
The program also is building a new five-lane road connecting west Tupelo to the Barnes Crossing area, scheduled for completion in 2014.
To keep pace with their maintenance, Mayor Jack Reed Jr. wanted the program to allocate some of its funding to the city’s overlay budget. But that effort failed.
This year the city overlayed six streets, including a long stretch of Mount Vernon Road, and milled and overlayed eight others.
Overlay places a new layer of asphalt on top of a road. Milling and overlay removes the existing asphalt before putting down the new layer.
“We could have done several more neighborhood streets if we hadn’t done Mount Vernon” this year, said Public Works Director Sid Russell.
In addition to the city’s existing transportation network, it acquired 125 new streets this month when it annexed parts of Lee County.
Russell said none of them appear to need immediate overlay, but they now are Tupelo’s responsibility to maintain.
The city hasn’t “addressed a lot of the streets in the annexation 20 years ago,” said Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings.
Despite their concerns, council members declined to increase Tupelo’s overlay budget this year. But many have said the topic will become a top priority in the coming months.
“With Major Thoroughfare spending $90 million in the last 20 years and no extra money has been put into the budget for overlays, something has to be done,” Pitts said.
“Our city streets are getting worse and worse, and if we don’t keep up we’ll get further and further down the road.”

Click video to hear audio