Adios Pavement, Hello Gravel?

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More than just a few municipalities are throwing in the towel on bad pavement. Replacing their potholes are gravel and dirt roads – which have their own issues.

Two noteworthy American cities about 1400 miles apart are chewing up rutted, potholed pavement and replacing them with dirt and gravel. The reason this is happening boils down to money – or a lack thereof. But others argue it’s just a matter of poor long-term planning and bad short-term decisions.

In a nice neighborhood of Omaha, Nebraska, where homes on large lots sell for $400,000 and more, the city road crews chewed up the decades-old asphalt streets and replaced them with dirt and gravel in the summer of 2016. This isn’t happening all over the town, just in neighborhoods where an original agreement determined that the streets needed no curbs and gutters and that homeowners were responsible for repaving when needed. Residents complained when the roads started falling apart, of course, but this latest move to de-paving culminates a long-standing refusal on their part to pay for asphalt maintenance.

Other areas of Omaha didn’t have this agreement and those streets are kept paved and well maintained. The 10,000 residents in the affected areas would need to come up with $300 million to restore their streets to asphalt.

This same retro solution is also being applied in Montpelier, Vermont. The nation’s smallest capital city, population 7,855 in the 2010 census, has decided that dwindling funds for infrastructure repairs are best used to grind up decrepit streets and turn them to dirt and gravel. Some residents and city leaders claim it is quaint and a nod to Yankee ingenuity and frugality. The owner of a car repair shop told Wired magazine that when well maintained, dirt-and-gravel roads are kinder to cars than heavily-potholed pavement.

Which indirectly gets to an important point: even dirt and gravel roads need repairs and maintenance. Yes, gravel roads too can get damaging dips and bumps if not given proper attention or under unexpectedly adverse weather conditions such as flooding. Add how traffic on gravel streets can kick up dust, affecting cars, homes and air quality and it’s easy to see how this is less than a perfect solution.

As people across the country are discovering. There are an estimated 1.6 million miles of unpaved roads in at least 27 states in the U.S. While that may seem dismal, they have to be considered in relationship to a score assigned to paved roads and bridges by the American Society of Civil Engineers to American roadways. That’s a letter D grade, poor road conditions largely attributed to how spending by federal, state and local departments of transportation hasn’t kept up with inflation. Because the costs of asphalt, cement and concrete have gone up even more than other goods, we effectively are spending nine percent less today than in 2003 – even while natural population increases mean more traffic plies and further damages those cracking, pitted and pockmarked highways.

One organization takes a strategic look at this and says it’s due to poor planning. Strong Towns, a non-profit advocacy group, says that in Omaha the original agreement was made by homeowners who just didn’t seem to care about what would happen in the future. “Let the guy who’s in charge 20 years from now worry about that,” the organization’s website sarcastically imagines how the conversation went. “Something gets lost in the math between ‘The city should keep up our roads’ and ‘we don’t want to personally pay for them,’” muses a Strong Towns column.

There are technological dynamics that might make a difference in how this plays out. In Montpelier they use geotextile, a durable and permeable fabric, to reinforce the dirt and gravel that minimizes erosion and drainage problems. Pothole repairs in asphalt too have fillers that offer varying degrees of longevity. While most asphalt applied in wet winter and spring conditions is temporary (and disappointing), some advanced asphalt formulations are permanent.

Strong Towns takes a dim view of suburban sprawl, examining how municipal and state leaders emphasize building without financial planning for long-term maintenance. These gravel roads might be a harbinger of things to come – or a wake up call to allocate more money to preventive maintenance and repairs.