Like other county operations, the Lauderdale County Highway Department has a full schedule of road and bridge maintenance, debris pickup, and other vital functions. Due to its location adjacent to the Mississippi River, however, the department must also deal with extensive flooding issues and the resulting damage.
Located in Ripley, Tennessee – the county seat and its largest municipality – the Highway Department has 26 full-time employees and over 60 pieces of equipment in its fleet (including dump trucks). The department maintains 495 miles of road, including 100 miles of gravel roads, 250 miles of chip and seal roads and 145 miles of hot mix asphalt roads.
Highway Commissioner Derek Kissell heads the operation. Born and raised in Lauderdale County, he has a degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Tennessee-Martin and is a licensed engineer. After graduation, Kissell went to work for the Tennessee Department of Transportation and stayed with TDOT for 11 years. He has held the Commissioner’s position for over five years.
FLOODING DAMAGE A YEARLY CHALLENGE
“We deal with Mississippi River flooding issues from November to July,” he comments. “It’s a big challenge. People are often taking boats to their homes, and we’re working on flood damage, for several months every year.”
Heavy rains caused catastrophic flooding along the Arkansas River in Oklahoma and Arkansas in early 2019, then moved farther south along the Mississippi River. Last February. flooding along the Mississippi, Tennessee and other rivers in the South caused billions of dollars in damage to homes, businesses and farmland. In late June, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced that U.S. Small Business Administration disaster loans were available to residents and businesses affected by the February flooding in 19 counties.
“Lauderdale and surrounding low-lying counties are used to flooding from the Mississippi and its tributaries, but not this bad,” Kissell says. “Farmers built makeshift levees to keep the water away, but many failed, sending rising water into their properties.
“This past fall, we were faced with two roadway slope/bluff failures – one was 350 feet long and 50 to 60 feet deep. We have 6,000 tons of riprap on it now – it was a big, 6-month project. It was contracted out, but our department managed the project.”
GRAVEL ROAD UPGRADES, BRIDGE REPLACEMENT PROJECTS UNDERWAY
The department has also tackled other ambitious projects in recent months; one big undertaking in the fall of 2019 was to resurface 20 miles of roads with tar and chip. And, as Kissell adds, “We maintain 250 bridges, and there are still a lot of wooden bridges in the county. We’re working to build two new concrete bridges each year through the state bridge program. Twenty-three of our bridges are eligible for IMPROVE Act funding.”The IMPROVE Act’s purpose is to create more funding for transportation and road projects. County Highway Departments across Tennessee are primarily funded by gasoline and diesel taxes. Revenue collected due to changes from the IMPROVE Act is expected to go toward funding 962 road projects across the state.
DEPARTMENT’S CAT MACHINES ARE IN CONSTANT USE
The Lauderdale County Highway Department’s equipment fleet includes six Cat machines, including a recently purchased 926M Wheel Loader and a 299D3 Compact Track Loader.
“The 299D3 an addition to our fleet, and our first compact track loader,” Kissell reports. “One primary thing we’re using it for is cutting shoulders. It’s much faster, easy to unload, and it’s really versatile because of all the available attachments. We put down shoulder materials with a road widener attachment, and we like that we can rent other attachments as needed from the Cat Rental Store.
“The 926M is a replacement for an 18-year-old machine,” he continues. “It’s used to load trucks with washed rock. Our loaders often different operators on different days – they like the 926M’s ease of operation, automatic controls, self-levelling, return-to-dig, and return-to-dump features. We appreciate the very easy operation and ease of serviceability and access. And Thompson Machinery’s parts and service support has been great.”
Like the older Cat machines in the fleet – including 308E2 and 320 hydraulic excavators and 420F backhoe loader – Kissell says the new additions are used nearly every day. He also points out that the machines were purchased using the State of Tennessee Multi-Year Contracts.
“We’re pursuing a big initiative to replace aging equipment,” Kissell states. “Our goal is to standardize on one make for servicing efficiency.”
While the Highway Department does the bulk of their own maintenance in their own impressive, well-equipped shop, Kissell says they also utilize Thompson shop and field service as needed.