Final Word

|  December 04, 2010 |

De-paving rural roads

By Kirk Landers

Several national news organizations have published stories regarding a growing trend in rural road management in which paved roads are being converted to gravel roads to save money. It has already happened in many rural counties and many more are exploring de-paving as a road management option.

In some cases, it makes fiscal sense. In flush times, some low volume country roads were paved to give residents relief from dust and flying rocks and seasonal washboard surfaces that eat vehicle suspensions. Roads with light average daily traffic counts and few heavy trucks can be cheaper to maintain as gravel roads, all other things being equal. Not better roads, mind you, but adequate and cheaper to maintain.

However, some of the roads being considered for de-paving carry vehicle loads that far surpass what a gravel road can safely and cost-efficiently handle. The unpaved road’s strength can be enhanced by creating a deeper base and adding a stabilizing ingredient to improve binding characteristics, but this diminishes the cost advantage and still results in a roadway with limited load-carrying potential.

The unpaved road’s strength can be enhanced by creating a deeper base and adding a stabilizing ingredient to improve binding characteristics.

If you’re thinking that loads on rural roads are minor, think again. In this age of large farms and ranches, rural roads carry huge farm machines and large tractor-trailer and tandem trailer rigs. Some roads are not only used to haul product from farm to market, but also to haul from field to farm, so stresses on the roadway can be very high, especially in key seasons.

The professionals managing these roads are being driven by desperation, not a passion for the good old days. In county after county, paved roads that were designed for a 20-year life are a decade or two beyond that. Years of deferred rehabilitation and repair are coming due at a time when funding is at shockingly low levels. Important roads need to be rebuilt or extensively rehabilitated but the money just isn’t there.

Managers of rural roads are making hard decisions about where to spend the few dollars they have. Many will be forced to de-pave roads to avoid the short term cost of rehabilitation, even though the long term cost of maintaining an overloaded gravel road will be higher. The taxpayer’s investment in the original paved road has already been squandered because of inadequate investment, and now we are wasting future tax dollars by not investing in the road we need.

Why should you care about rural America?

For one, because these folks are creating our single biggest export – agricultural products. At a time when federal deficits and balance of trade deficits are on everyone’s mind, we all have a stake in how cost-efficiently our farm products get to market.

Beyond that, the same kind of road crisis is evolving in metropolitan areas, but at a slower pace. There, road managers are focusing dollars on preserving major thoroughfares and freeways; erosion is taking place mainly on tertiary roads. But without a major new federal road program, the gradual decay will reach important secondary roads just as surely as it has rural roads. EW

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