Eagle Ford counties facing a rough road toward repairs

KARNES COUNTY — Some of the roads here are so beaten down that Laura Hahn scraped the bottom of her car the other day when her tires drifted into the deep ruts worn by oil field trucks.

Her boyfriend was nearly hit by a truck recently. And her sister’s home and garden in nearby Yorktown is covered by a fine, white layer of caliche dust kicked up by the traffic of the shale drilling boom.
“I’m not a big fan of the trucks,” Hahn said. “There are just people everywhere.”

There’s road damage everywhere, too, with more than $2 billion in annual road repair needs across the state because of drilling activity — about $1 billion for damage to state roads and $1 billion for city and county roads, according to Texas Department of Transportation estimates.

And across a 20-county swath of rural South Texas where oil gas production has gone into a round-the-clock frenzy, officials are struggling to manage crumbling roadways on limited budgets.
At least one DeWitt County official believes the state should be reinvesting some of the tax money it receives into road repair funds for Eagle Ford counties.

At a recent meeting in Laredo of TxDOT’s Task Force on Texas’ Energy Needs, interim executive director John Barton said everything from the weight of the trucks and increased traffic counts to trucks hitting bridges is wearing out roads and bridges faster than expected. “The challenge becomes, can we afford that?” Barton asked.

Rural roads designed for light traffic now are handling thousands of trucks per day, some weighing more than 170,000 pounds, he said.

And the number of trucks needed to bring one well into production — around 1,184 loaded trucks — has the equivalent impact of 8 million cars.

Naismith Engineering Inc. in Corpus Christi did a study for DeWitt County, between San Antonio and Victoria, that calculated that the county’s nearly 400 miles of roadway inside the shale play needed more than $400 million in repair work to be able handle heavy trucks.

“Some of these roads will bounce you right off the pavement it’s such a rough ride,” said David Underbrink, president of Naismith Engineering. “They’re really caught with lots of issues to try to keep the road system going.”

DeWitt County Judge Daryl Fowler is trying to build a coalition of oil and gas producing counties, as well as oil and gas companies, in advance of the 2013 Legislative session. He hopes that a slice of the state’s severance taxes, which are paid on oil and gas production, can help with road repairs. That money now goes into the state’s Rainy Day Fund and the Permanent University Fund.

DeWitt County will collect around $3.6 million more in property taxes this year than last year, but Fowler said that doesn’t begin to address the road needs.

The county also has collected around $2 million so far through voluntary agreements with oil and gas companies that are paying $8,000 per well toward road repairs.

Across the play, ad hoc repair agreements have become common. Companies contribute loads of cement, cash or a truckload of gravel to a project, while the county brings the workers to do repairs on a stretch of road.

But Fowler said it’s not a long-term solution for road fixes, and he noted that between March and August, an estimated $71 million in state severance taxes came from DeWitt County production.

“The issue I have with that is that money is leaving here and going there,” Fowler said. “It’s cost free to the state. We’re suffering to the damage.”

But Fowler knows that asking the Legislature for money won’t be easy. “But the state leadership ought to realize that they cannot ignore the goose that’s laying the golden eggs,” he said. “If the state doesn’t have good roads, it could all come to a standstill.”

And yet, Fowler and others also are quick to point out that those damaged roads mean jobs – for which they’re grateful.

Some of Hahn’s friends have found work driving trucks. And Hahn said that most of them have been flipped off by passing cars — evidently frustrated by the traffic — even when they’ve pulled over to the side of the road to help a stranded driver. “They’re like, ‘I was trying to help,’.” Hahn said.

In Falls City, about 43 miles southeast of San Antonio in Karnes County, Busy Beaver convenience store manager Bob Sherman said business at the store and gas station has quadrupled. A new handwritten sign taped to the glass door says “Open 24 Hours” for the first time ever.

“Need a job?” Sherman asks. “I’ll get you a job.”

He said the side roads and dirt roads of Karnes County have been particularly hard hit by the truck traffic and that, “Sometimes it’s dangerous on the roads.”

“You’ve got the good with the bad,” he said. “It’s been a great boost for Karnes County. This Eagle Ford Shale thing has really been a blessing for this county.”

jhiller@express-news.net