Asphalt plant hasn't been a boon or a failure

It sounded like a no-brainer when Highlands County commissioners were pitched the idea of building an asphalt plant. The county would be able to produce the asphalt needed to build and patch roads throughout the county, as well as sell it to local cities and even, possibly, other counties.

The county was supposed to save and make money on the deal, as well as be less dependent on pricey, and not-so-dependable availability of the aggregate from private businesses. Even excess methane gas produced at the county landfill would be used to produce the stuff.

Over several years the profits or savings never materialized and the use of excess methane from the landfill didn't work out because of its corrosive properties. A "scrubber" would be needed to clean the gas and that's some expensive machinery.

The good news is that the county has certainly used the asphalt. There are a lot of paved roads in Highlands County and others that need to be paved. According to road and bridge supervisor Kyle Green, it's a break-even proposition.

The county bought the $3.3 million plant in 2008 and faced tough fights to get it going when private asphalt producers tried to put a halt to a government-owned entity competing with them. The county won that battle, but there have been questions ever since on whether it's worth it for the county to be in the asphalt business.

Highlands Today supported the plant when it was first built, believing what solid waste director Ken Wheeler said about this being a win-win for the county. So did a lot of people, but there have been critics from the start. Although the plant didn't live up to expectations, it seems to be working.

If the cost is a wash, the availability is a win. When seeking asphalt bids from outside businesses the county has found that it's not always available when it's needed. That isn't the case with the county's plant.

Perhaps as the economy turns around and more asphalt is needed for development the asphalt plant will be more valuable to the county. It's only running a few days a week now, but if it was cranked up due to demand, the price to produce it could come down and the county could see some savings.

It was a difficult decision when the commission first approved it and it's still not a home run. Maybe it never will be the success a lot of people envisioned, but it's too early to pull the plug.