Prior to 1917, all county roads were maintained by the townships. That changed by an act of the Legislature in that year. Now, Kansas had three systems in place to maintain roads at the county level.
• The non-county unit road system. Used by 35 counties, including Barton, this basically means the townships maintain the dirt roads and the county maintains the paved roads.
The county maintains all the bridges as well as those culverts with a waterway opening of 25 square feet or larger. Unless the county has elected to take over all road maintenance, townships are responsible for sand and/or dirt roads.
• The county unit road system. Used by 65 counties, this means the county maintains all the roads.
• The general county rural highway system, or county-rural system. Similar to the county unit system, this means the county maintains all the roads, but takes care of them out of two different funds, based on how heavily they are traveled.
It started as a concern expressed by a rural southwest Barton County resident over the conditions of gravel roads in the area, but it evolved into a discussion of the township road system and whose responsibility it is to maintain them.
Judy Demel addressed the Barton County Commission Monday morning about Southwest 80 Avenue between West Barton County Road and U.S. 56, a stretch of gravel road west of the Great Bend Municipal Airport. Her main concern was the intersection SW 80 Avenue and SW 10 Road.
“It’s been washed out all summer,” said Demel, who lives in the vicinity. There are spots where the road isn’t level and that there is no longer a ditch, causing drainage issues.
Demel said she’s complained to township officials about the problem, but has gotten no response. At this location, SW 80 runs along the dividing line between Liberty Township (to the east) and Pawnee Rock Township (to the west).
With all the rain of late, said commission Chairman Kenny Schremmer, washouts are not uncommon. “They are scattered all over.”
However, Schremmer said, the care for these unpaved roads is the purview of the townships, not the county. This will be the case as long as Barton County follows the township road system.
How does the system work?
According to the Kansas Association of Counties, responsibility for maintaining township roads in the state can be handled by the county or by the township. Prior to 1917 the townships maintained all the roads, but since then, the responsibility has been divided following action by the Legislature.
Generally speaking, a township road is unpaved and a county road is paved. Unless the county has elected to take over all road maintenance, townships are responsible for sand and/or dirt roads.
Today, there are three types of systems in Kansas.
The second-most common is the non-county unit road system. This is used in 35 of the 105 counties, including Barton, Ellsworth, Pawnee, Rice, Rush, Russell and Stafford counties.
The non-county unit road system is also called the county-township system. In this system the county maintains the main traveled roads, which includes the county federal aid routes and those roads designated by the county commission as routes designed primarily for the movement of traffic between different areas of the county. The townships maintain the local roads that are not within a city. The county maintains all the bridges as well as those culverts with a waterway opening of 25 square feet or larger.
So, according to Barton County Engineer Clark Rusco, in Barton County, the county Road and Bridge Department takes care of the 398.5 miles of paved roads, and a half mile of sand road. The 22 townships divvy up the 1,224 miles of unpaved roads with the average being about 50 miles per township (Lakin has 97 and Comanche has 78).
There are also 124 miles of state and federal highways in the county.
Funding for the county roads is on a county-wide tax basis with all property in the county having the same mill levy for county roads and bridges. Township road maintenance is provided by the townships and is funded from a mill levy on property within the township. Townships do not collect property tax for property within a city.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t any cooperation between townships and the county. Barton County Road and Bridge Director Dale Phillips Monday morning said his department can help if requested and the request is OKed by the commission.
Also, only the county is permitted to place barricades near a dangerous stretch of road.
Phillips said it is common for his staff and the county engineer to consult with township officials. “I believe the system works very well.”
• The county unit road system is the most common system, used in 65 counties. Ellis, Pratt and Rush are nearest counties that utilize this method.
Here, the county is responsible for maintaining all the public roads outside the cities. The townships have no road maintenance responsibilities. Again, funding for all the county roads is on a county-wide property tax basis. This results in a somewhat higher mill levy for city residents than with the county-township system, as the city residents have to pay taxes for maintaining all the roads in the county, including the old township roads.
• The general county rural highway system, or county-rural system, is similar to the county unit system in that the county maintains all the public roads outside the cities, and the townships have no road maintenance responsibilities. In this system, however, the county has to have two separate funds, one for the main traveled county roads, and one fund for what were previously township roads. The county-rural system was authorized by state law in 1970.
There are just three counties in Kansas with this road system, all in the northeast part of the state.
Also, in Barton County there is a patchwork of rules and requirements for such things as the construction of a field entrances and utilities. Each township sets its own guidelines.
In the discussion Monday about SW 80 Avenue, the idea that perhaps the wrong sized culverts were placed in ditches when entrances were built. These large pipes are buried and allow water to flow through while allowing vehicles to drive across the ditch.
When a culvert is too small, it restricts water, causing it to back up and, potentially, flood a road. This can wash away the road surface.
It is up to the township to decide what culvert size is appropriate and to install it. Townships also approve the installation of the driveways.
Commissioner Ken Lebbin asked if there was any way to standardize these rules. Under the township road system, he was told, there is not.
But, Schremmer said there have been cooperative efforts between the townships and the county. They just have to ask.
Another concern is taxes, Schremmer said. Townships operate on a shoestring budget and are often hesitant to seek mill levy increases.
Commissioners had planned on taking a trip to see one other road problem Monday afternoon. They decided to add Demel’s intersection to their list.