Last in a series
Joe Copeland is realistic when it comes to Henry County’s 777 miles of roads.
But he’s also determined.
“We’re not going to be able to go out and pave every road in the same year, two years or even three years,” Copeland said. “What we need to do is put the right type of fix on the roads at the right time. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Copeland the engineer is also Copeland the Henry County highway superintendent. The dual role is certainly challenging, but he believes progress can be made.
And he’s champing at the bit for the weather to break so his team can put a plan into action.
“We’ve got a lot to do,” Copeland said. “We’ve got to do it in a certain order. The whole thing is just getting it done. We have to put our foot to the floor and get moving.”
Money and manpower have both been in short supply over the years. But Copeland knows he’s not alone.
“We’re understaffed, to be honest,” Copeland said. “We need more people and I’ve talked to the county council about the possibility of adding a couple more truck drivers next year.”
The Henry County Highway Department has 20 hourly employees. At one time, that number was closer to 40.
Meanwhile, road funding is like a pothole that’s hard to drive around.
“Road funding statewide is back up, but still not adequate to keep a good, level surface on these roads,” Copeland said. “The problem is if you go out and try to get federal money for these roads, you have to go through all these hoops. You have to do environmental and right-of-way acquisition. Even with an 80-20 match, it may cost over $2 million a mile. If you can’t prove you own that right-of-way, the feds will make you re-buy it.”
With funding limited, Copeland says it makes doing things the right way even more important. He remembers seeing some of the issues here back in 2014 when he was the county highway engineer.
“I was told years ago they laid an awful lot of what they call ‘cold mix,’” Copeland said. “It was asphalt emulsion mixed with gravel. Well, it wasn’t a very good mix. When you lay that, it kind of remains a little soft and you need to cover it the following year with a seal. You need to seal it up. My understanding was they laid thousands and thousands of tons of this asphalt but didn’t get back and seal it.
“So now those areas that weren’t sealed are coming apart – bad,” Copeland continued. “They’re coming completely apart so you’ve got to get out and patch and patch and patch. If they had covered that, it would have probably been a different story.”
Another issue that, in Copeland’s opinion, has hindered road progress here is the distance between the county highway department and needed materials. Two times in the recent past, Milestone has sought to put a plant in the area. Both times, local residents objected.
If there was a Milestone plant within closer proximity, Copeland says the county’s precious road dollars would go further.
“It would cut transportation costs,” Copeland said. “It would cut our time having to go get it. We could lay it more efficiently. It would help tremendously.”
But in the big picture, Henry County’s road challenges are a microcosm of what is a national problem. There are infrastructure needs far and wide across the country, particularly where bridges are concerned.
While Congress passes $1.9 trillion stimulus packages, bridge money is hard to come by.
“Right now, I can replace one bridge, one large culvert and maybe re-do a bridge deck with an overlay and that’s about it,” Copeland said. “We get about $300,000 a year. Some bigger bridges will cost more than that to replace. It’s tough.
“I came from Madison County and they’ve got the same problem,” Copeland said. “But it’s hard to increase the bridge fund because it affects your general fund. It is what it is, and you do the best you can.”
One thing appears certain. Joe Copeland, the former Tri High offensive lineman turned highway engineer and superintendent, will keep pushing hard toward the goal line.