If I could, I'd attend the National Association of County Engineers conference every year. I've never seen such camaraderie or joyful pursuit of good, clean fun.
After listening to their stories, I know why these men (and with a few exceptions, such as May 2009 cover story subject Susan Miller of Minnesota's Freeborn County, they're almost all men) forge lifelong friendships. Any job related to the care and feeding of infrastructure doesn't get the respect it deserves, but county engineers are uniquely marginalized.
The group formed the same year the Interstate Highway System was authorized. That single piece of legislation transformed road-building into big business and big politics, but it supports less than 2% of the nation's roads. Lost in the hullabaloo over funding formulas and reauthorization is the fact that half a century later 53% of our roads — 1.6 million miles — aren't paved. Designing and maintaining those assets is a science that only the 2,000 or so people who do it for a living fully appreciate. As National Local Technical Assistance Program Association President Kenneth Skorseth says: “There's never a ribbon-cutting when you build a gravel road.”
Placed to help get crops and livestock to market, rural roads are being shredded by wind farm and natural gas drilling equipment on its way to remote home-grown energy sources. As city dwellers seek opportunities for country living, roads built to handle 150 vehicles a day are carrying two and three times as many. Justifying the cost of the most durable material — quarry aggregate with 6% to 8% natural clay fine — is difficult; formal training, a luxury. Gravel Roads Maintenance and Design Manual, written by Skorseth for South Dakota's Local Transportation Assistance Program, is one of the Federal Highway Administration's most frequently requested publications.
Rural crashes are horrific and often fatal as victims wait for paramedics to reach the scene. County and tribal engineers have successfully partnered to obtain federal safety and planning monies, but the hoops they jump through make a standard environmental review look like child's play. One project required tracking down and getting the approval of half the offspring of the original owners of 400 allotments.
Like road managers in more populated areas, county engineers are exploring processes and products they hope will prolong asset life. The group's trade show isn't large but debate over vendors' claims and seminars was lively. If you're not a member, find a way to join. Don't be intimidated by the name: At least half the members aren't licensed engineers, so the organization may add “and Road Supervisors” to its name. Start by visiting www.countyengineers.org.
- Stephanie Johnston,
Editor in Chief
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