The black-and-white map on Smith County Engineer Frank Davis’ desk shows every mile of road he is now responsible for. He’s been on the job since early July and a yellow highlighter marks each road he’s driven.
Davis said he’s probably driven a quarter of the 1,200 miles of county roads so far, but expects he’ll get to know the others soon.
The county hasn’t had an engineer on staff since 2007 and commissioners have pressed the search over the past year. In Davis, county commissioners believe they have found someone who can steer Smith County’s Road and Bridge Department as it deals with rural-to-urban growth and tries to build and maintain roads as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Davis, 56, has been an engineer and land surveyor for more than 32 years. He’s worked as the city of Tyler’s engineer and as director of public works for three Texas municipalities for 11 years. His experience ranged from streets, downtown and park development, wastewater collection and water distribution and storage.
He also served 25 years as an officer in the U.S. Navy and was deployed to the Middle East twice since 2007 as a commander in the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. He oversaw projects ranging from airfield taxiways, roads, water distribution and regional command facilities with a combined value of $755 million.
Davis said he believes his public and private work experience will benefit the county as plans to assess and address county infrastructure move forward.
County Judge Joel Baker said the county was fortunate to have an engineer of Davis’ caliber and access to the breadth of his experience.
“We’re happy to have found him and that he agreed to serve,” Baker said.
Baker envisions Davis elevating to a Public Works Director position as the county shifts its management chart. It would include fleet and facilities management as well as overseeing construction and maintenance of county infrastructure.
Davis arrives with Smith County facing a crossroads regarding its road inventory. Urban/suburban growth in rural areas are pushing infrastructure to the limits.
Traffic volumes represent safety, connectivity and maintenance concerns in booming areas.
Smith County’s 2007 goal to rebuild 100 miles of roadways annually and treat many more miles to extend pavement life slipped into “maintenance only” mode in 2010 when the economy tanked. Its Road and Bridge Department was cut 37 percent that year to $6.85 million from a peak funding level of $10.7 million in 2009.
A 2008 county road assessment rated 71 percent of county roads as “bad or poor” and estimated the cost to bring the system up to standard at around $17 million.
Four years of filling potholes, addressing drainage and seal-coating pavement has not addressed commissioners’ major concerns.
“What I see is roads that were built for small family farms and now there are subdivisions with hundreds of homes,” he said. “It’s not just the wear and tear, it’s also the flow problems, intersections with no turn lanes and stop-and-go traffic trying to get on (Farm-to-Market, Texas Highways and U.S. Highways).”
Roads always have been the chief complaint, although current members say Road and Bridge’s quick responses to maintenance calls have reduced constituent call, email and letter volumes.
The county commissioned a road analysis and five-year construction and maintenance plan by Atkins, a British multinational engineering design, planning, project management and consulting services company. The analysis is expected to be completed in the spring.
The court approved a 2015 budget that included funding road projects with $2 million from reserves. Baker and other court members also have verbally committed to dedicate the slight property tax rate increase, around $940,000 in revenue, to roads.
Commissioner Jeff Warr said the timing of Davis’ hiring could not have been better. There are needs to assess and address and the county is poised to invest in its infrastructure, he said.
Davis said he hopes to have a good idea what roads and bridges will be top priorities by February. The Road and Bridge Department can then prepare for implementing suggested maintenance projects, and commissioners can prepare for project bid processes for major rebuilds next summer, he said.
Funding any plan will be the challenge. Road construction costs have about doubled since Davis began working for the city of Tyler in 1995.
Davis participated in planning the initial project list and program when voters approved the city’s half-cent sales tax. The tax effectively ended the city’s reliance on voter-approved bonds to fund city streets.
He said he would leave it up to politicians and the public to decide how the Road and Bridge Department approaches the five-year plan. It could be condensed with an influx of money or extended if money is short, he said.
Baker and Warr said they would consider all options when it comes to paying for county roads. Baker has said the plan could spark public dialogue about whether the county should proceed by taking on debt or pay cash for roads.
Roads could be addressed “in one fell swoop,” Baker said, if taxpayers want to issue bonds or incrementally with dedicated revenue and other funding mechanisms, such as the Transportation Reinvestment Zone around Toll 49 still under consideration by the court.
Davis said he’s excited and “here for the long haul.”
“Our goal is to be responsive to residents and to ultimately have a good road program they can be proud of,” he said.