State law dictates much of the commissioners court’s road and bridge responsibilities. Obviously, construction and maintenance of county roads and bridges are a major responsibility, but a host of other duties fall to a commissioners court.
Duties are outlined in Chapter 81 of the Local Government Code and Chapters 250-281 of the Transportation Code. While these guidelines outline legal requirements, experts offer tips to help commissioners better handle the daily demands of roads and bridges.
Public v. Private Roads
In general, a commissioners court handles all matters dealing with the opening, construction and maintenance of roads.
This means a court has the authority to classify a county road. A commissioners court also can change the status of a county road, whether it be closing a road, discontinuing maintenance on a road, or adding a new road as demands for roads grow.
Attorney Bob Bass, of Allison, Bass & Associates, L.L.P., of Austin, said the acceptance of subdivision plat maps can confuse a commissioners court. The plat, he said, is for recording purposes only and does not require a county to maintain the roads within the plat. A separate order should be filed for each road the county maintains within the plat.
Bass cautioned commissioners to be aware that most road decisions must be acted on by a commissioners court, rather than by an individual commissioner. Commissioners can face criminal prosecution if they use county equipment or labor to work on private property.
“New commissioners often are eager to help the folks who elected them, but this can get them into trouble,” Bass said.
While grading a bus route on a private road or paving a church parking lot may seem to serve the public good, such decisions can backfire. Actions that require use of taxpayer dollars are best left to the entire commissioners court, explained Bass.
Larry Timmerman, Guadalupe County road administrator, advised commissioners to become familiar with private property issues. Problems can recur, he said, particularly when a new commissioner comes on board.
“Property owners often will try to convince a new commissioner to do something a previous commissioner wouldn’t do, such as maintaining a private road,” Timmerman said.
The court or the road superintendent must determine the best maintenance schedule for county roads, Bass said.
While counties must decide what works best for them, Bass said they should be guided by the rule of thumb that a road should remain free of defects or dangers to the public.
Russell Hanson, Randall County road and bridge engineer, said commissioners should be aware of the county’s maintenance cycle and know the road and bridge priorities. This knowledge, he said, will aid commissioners when dealing with taxpayers asking for weeds to be mowed, snow to be plowed, or other maintenance.
For counties that operate under a unit system for roads and bridges, this awareness is key for commissioners to handle public inquiries and to be aware of what is going on in their precincts, Hanson said.
A court can cease public maintenance of a road without notice, but a public hearing or notice is recommended, Bass said. The Transportation Code gives counties authority to “discontinue” maintenance of a road that has been vacated or unused for three years.
Right of Way
A commissioners court has the authority to grant public right of way for utilities that serve the public good. In most cases, a court can designate where the utility can be placed and should encourage it to be well below routine maintenance levels.
Routine maintenance should follow the “Dig Statute,” Section 251 of the Utilities Code, designed to protect underground facilities related to electricity, gas, petroleum or petroleum products, steam, or telecommunications services. However, a county is not required to contact the Notification Center for work up to 24 inches deep.
Bass said he recommends any “deep” maintenance, such as replacing a culvert, not be done without contacting the Notification Center.