Pavement Maintenance Lagging, Many Roads Returning to Gravel

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For many farmers and residents of rural areas in the U.S., it’s like a step back into time. Due to inadequate road repair funds, several states and counties across America are converting once-paved roads back to gravel.

According to conditions reported in The Wall Street Journal in 2010, the price of petroleum has a lot to do with it. Asphalt is made with aggregate mixed with oil byproducts. With the soaring price of crude, the cost of maintaining and rebuilding asphalt roads has become economically prohibitive to many counties and townships. After they are no longer able repair multiplying potholes that naturally result with age, traffic and seasonal freeze-thaw oscillations, the only affordable option is to convert asphalt roadways into what was there decades ago, crushed stone.

“A lot of these roads have just deteriorated to the point that they have no other choice than to turn them back to gravel,” said Larry Galehouse, director of the National Center for Pavement Preservation at Michigan State University, to the Journal. “We’re leaving an awful legacy for future generations.”

This is happening in widespread sections of the country, from California to Michigan, Iowa and South Dakota.

In Washington County, Iowa, the county engineer told the National Association of Counties’ County News, “Our ability to maintain our roads has diminished, particularly over the last 10 to 20 years as we’ve experienced cost increases and funding shortfalls.”

In Sonoma County, which is part of California’s venerated wine producing region (adjacent to Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties), the board of supervisors looked at a $55 million estimate for county road networks against its $5 million budget. Of nearly 1400 miles of roads in the county, only 11 percent (about 150 miles) are now deemed a priority.

While decisions about what will happen to lower-priority roads have yet to be made, the county’s transportation and public works director told County News, “at some point, the roads not on a priority system…will be just too costly to provide those safety improvements. At that time we’re probably going to pulverize them and turn them into gravel.”

People who use the lower-priority gravel roads – rural residents and farmers, primarily –are none too pleased. When Brown County, South Dakota converted one road to gravel, residents immediately complained. Counties are quickly learning to handle public relations matters when these pavement-to-gravel conversions take place.

In Indiana, the Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) out of Purdue University conducts seminars titled “Back to the Stone Age,” which counsels counties on de-paving roads. “There are some public relations issues that go along with unpaved versus paved roads,” said John Habermann, head of the program. “There would be some dust considerations to deal with,” he told County News. “Landowners who have grown accustomed to pavement now living on a gravel road may expect some dust controls to go along with that.”

Expensive oil, declining gas tax revenues to blame

The economics of road maintenance is a vicious circle. Petroleum is an essential component of asphalt, and since the July 2010 report about roads going gravel in The Wall Street Journal the price per barrel of crude oil has risen from about $76 to $102, an approximately 34 percent increase.

Compounding matters is where the money comes from to pay for fixing potholes and other pavement deterioration. While gasoline taxes have traditionally funded road maintenance it is an amount pegged per gallon of consumption, not price (an amount that varies by state and county, as detailed in this Pothole.info article). The current recession has meant overall traffic has declined over the past few years. Add to that how increased fuel efficiency means fewer gallons of gasoline is purchased overall. That foretells a grim longer-term future for highway maintenance revenues overall.

Bottom line: Funding for road repair has diminished even as costs have risen.

The U.S. Federal Highway Administration maintains a guidebook for gravel road upkeep (“Gravel Roads Maintenance and Design Manual”) that claims eight inches of gravel can be installed at an expense that is equivalent to putting in a single inch of asphalt. But the maintenance costs do not end with installation – not if you want to keep the gravel roads operable. Every mile of a gravel road in Michigan, for example, costs about $2,600 per year to maintain (reconstruction of the same road would cost $75,000 per mile). In Iowa, Allamakee County’s roads engineer claims that per-mile costs for conversion to gravel are around $5,000 per mile where resurfacing could cost as much as $100,000. Conversions require special equipment as well: one type of equipment used for the gravel conversion, a Caterpillar RM300 rotary mixer, costs $400,000.

“This is a step backwards”

No one is particularly happy with this phenomenon. According to an April 2011 story about it in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “the paved roads that finally brought rural American in to the 20th century are starting to disappear across the Midwest in the 21st…country residents driving cars and pickup trucks hate the gravel for its slushy texture in spring, the dust in summer and the washboard-like ridges that sometimes emerge.”

The paper notes that the Minnesota state legislature raised the state’s gas tax by 8.5 cents per gallon in 2008, which has helped stave off asphalt-to-gravel conversions in many places. Residents and elected officials there see what’s happening with gravel in neighboring states and are willing to pay more into public coffers to prevent it.

“We definitely miss the hard surface [roads],” a resident of Lansing, Iowa told the newspaper reporter from the Twin Cities. But that particular resident’s husband was more philosophical about it. Gravel did, he notes, replace a potholed streetscape with stones. “I’d rather have concrete, but it’s just so expensive. And really, why should everybody in the rest of the county help pay for my hard surface road?”