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Published November 13, 2009, 12:00 AM

Turbines: Heavy loads damage roads

WORTHINGTON — In southwest Minnesota, farmers have struggled through months, even years, of low commodity prices for the food they produce — from pork chops to a glass of milk.

By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe

Editor’s Note: This is the final segment in a series of stories about wind turbines and their impact on the rural landscape.

WORTHINGTON — In southwest Minnesota, farmers have struggled through months, even years, of low commodity prices for the food they produce — from pork chops to a glass of milk.

Then, along came companies like enXco, offering those same farmers and landowners an opportunity — a chance to take some of their land out of production and, in its place, erect wind turbines to harvest one of the region’s greatest natural resources.

The concept seems a win-win for landowners. They collect income from the utility company, and still have the ground underneath to plant crops or use as pasture for grazing livestock.

The townships and counties benefit as well, with each taking in a share of the wind energy production tax revenue. In 2010, townships will collect 20 percent of the tax revenue, while the remaining 80 percent goes to the county.

Until a year ago, counties used that money to complete special projects. In Murray County, a new grandstand was built at the fairgrounds, a new human services building was constructed on the edge of Slayton, and a storage facility was also constructed in the county.

When changes were made in the tax code by the Minnesota legislature in 2008, counties no longer had the flexibility to use the funds for special projects. Instead, the money was put toward their operating levies.

In Nobles County, with just 38 wind turbines in operation, approximately $125,000 in wind energy production tax was collected in 2009. That money lowered the total amount of tax dollars the county could collect from its residents.

At the same time, it all but eliminated a county’s ability to fund special projects without bonding for it or raising taxes.

That’s a concern for counties that already face levy limits from the state. It’s also a concern for those who work to maintain our rural roads and bridges.

Developing protocol

Tim Stahl, Jackson County Highway Engineer, is among a group of engineers from across southern Minnesota that, for more than a year, has examined the issues associated with the large loads hauling wind turbine parts through the county, and the toll those heavy loads are taking on the road system.

“What we’re working on is to address the concerns we have as county engineers,” said Stahl. Together, the group is working on a Best Management Practices plan for wind farm development as it pertains to local land use and road authorities.

Once completed, the plan will quantify the damage large loads have on the roads and provide protocol that will explain the responsibility utility companies have to keep the roads maintained.

“These companies want to start (construction) before spring load restrictions are lifted,” said Stahl. “Just a few loads in the spring will destroy a road. I’ve heard 80 percent of damage to a road can occur in the six to eight weeks of spring load restrictions.”

There are other issues, too, like who should pay for bridge structure analyses on roads where the overweight vehicles travel, and what the developer’s responsibility is with regard to traffic flow.

The long loads require moving stop signs at rural intersections to provide enough room for the trucks to turn. Stahl questioned who pays for the costs of relocating stop signs and monitoring temporary, moveable stop signs during construction.

“By using this (Best Management Plan), we can show the legislature that these things don’t come without a fee,” he said.

“The revenue (from wind turbines) is wonderful, but it doesn’t come without a cost. The amount of damage we’ve seen on the two projects we had in Jackson County was that the road life is consumed by these projects,” he added. “We are trying to get a handle on this ahead of time — sharing information with these companies so better decisions are made.”

Collecting fees

Already, Jackson County charges an additional fee for overweight and over-dimension loads that travel the county’s road system. Murray County does as well, while Rock, Pipestone and Cottonwood counties do not charge an added fee.

In Nobles County, Public Works Director Stephen Schnieder has already approached county commissioners with a proposal to begin charging companies for overweight and over-dimension loads. The goal is to get the fee schedule in place by the end of this year.

Schnieder said the fees are needed to help repair damage those heavy loads do to the road system, especially since the wind energy production tax cannot be used to offset the costs.

With the tax reimbursement issue likely to be discussed in the next legislative session, Schnieder said it would help if the tax revenue could be used for special county projects, rather than counted against a county’s overall levy.

“Landowners get rent, the county (should) get income to do projects and catch up on some of the back log,” he said.

With just 38 wind turbines operating in Nobles County today, Schnieder said the county hasn’t seen any damage yet to local roads and bridges. However, he said few of the county’s roads were used to bring in parts for the largest wind farm — part of the Fenton Wind project in northern Nobles County.

“This (next project) is a bit different,” Schnieder said. “All of the loads are going to come across Nobles County.”

Even with a fee schedule in place, Schnieder said the income will be far below what will be needed for road maintenance.

“We may get $10,000 in fees, but we’ll have half a million dollars in costs to repair the roads,” he said.

Among the fees the county is considering is a fee for visual repairs and a fee for unseen damage to the roadways that can’t be seen at the time of the project. It is also looking at how many miles the overweight and over-dimension loads are traveling and may end up charging a rate per mile for those vehicles, said Schnieder.

There is another factor in Nobles County that is also driving the need to implement fees — the economy.

“Public Works took a 15-percent reduction in 2010,” said Schnieder. “When you’re looking at a loss of revenue ... we’re looking at recouping some of those maintenance costs.”

Taking a toll

Stahl said establishing a fee system for overweight and over-dimension loads is “not to be prohibitive of development, but protective of the road development” counties have in place.

Road damage caused by overweight loads may not be seen for years.

“Cracks start on the bottom and work their way up,” he said. Cracks shorten the road life, causing counties to put more money into repairs and reconstruction projects.

Schnieder said roads are built with a 25-year design, meaning that after 25 years, counties know they will likely begin to see wear issues on the roadway. With excessive travel by overweight vehicles, however, he said roads may need to be redone in 12 or 15 years instead.

“The surface of the road won’t last as long,” said Schnieder, adding that the public may start to see issues like ruts in the road, shoulders that have worn away and striping wear due to over-width loads traveling over fog line and center striping. Gravel roads would need additional maintenance and material for proper upkeep; and additional cribbing may be needed underneath bridges to add more support for the overweight loads.

“Our interest is always the public,” Schnieder said. “Who pays for the roads (damaged by wind energy companies)? It shouldn’t be the taxpayers.”

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