Budget crises have forced many rural governments around the country to revert back to gravel roads. Montpelier, Vt., and Franklin County, Ala., are among them.
In order to understand the decision, it’s important to put the moves in context. It’s been generally understood that unpaved roads have been considered the lowest level of service provided. In recent years, some agencies have adopted a more forward-thinking approach by paving less traveled roads with little or no base preparation. Asphalt and construction prices were low, which entered into the equation. Those asphalt roads have run their course and are now difficult and expensive to maintain.
A myriad of concerns
Michigan is a great example of where these concerns hit home hard. Th e Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan released findings of a public policy survey. The report presents the opinions of Michigan’s local government leaders on a range of issues surrounding roads and bridges in their jurisdictions, from their current condition and maintenance to state and local road funding. Findings in the report are based on statewide surveys of local government leaders in the fall 2014 wave of the Michigan Public Policy Survey.
Poor road conditions pose threats beyond everyday commutes to work, school or other venues. According to the report, “this discrepancy is most striking — and perhaps most troubling — when looking at the impact on the ability of public safety personnel to respond to an emergency. Where roads are reported to be in overall poor condition, 52 percent of local leaders say that they have a negative impact on emergency response capabilities in the jurisdiction. But where roads are ‘good,’ 78 percent say they positively impact emergency response.”
The concerns don’t end here. Per the report, less tangible ones include “citizen satisfaction with local government, local economic development, the jurisdiction’s fiscal health, and local tourism.” Although not at the forefront, 31 percent of local leaders in Michigan rated their roads as poor, also citing negative impacts on the local agricultural sector.
A means to evaluate
But how does one evaluate the condition of the roads? The city of Montpelier, Vt., has embraced a formula to do just that. According to a 2016 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, the city uses a 100-point scale to assess road conditions. For example, “with a rating of 0 indicating a completely failed road and 100 an excellent road. PCI ratings from 1 to 13 are low enough to be considered 9 or 10 for conversion from paved to unpaved”
A viable alternative
According to Montpelier Director of Public Works Thomas McArdle, the initial conversion was prompted in part by taxpayer feedback. Around 2009, funding for street maintenance was also very limited, so they were in need of a viable alternative to meet the demands of drivers.
“The idea for our first street conversion was actually suggested by a couple residing on the street who commented that the street is only paved for about a mile and the gravel section of the road in the adjoining town was usually in much better condition,” he said.
Since that time, funding for street maintenance has increased significantly, he noted. However, if circumstances called for converting other roads to gravel, he said his team would certainly consider it.
A tough spot
Franklin County, Ala, which has a population of about 31,000, still faces the same budgetary challenges. David Palmer, county engineer and a 27-year veteran with the county government, said the budget has remained flat while costs have risen disproportionately. In order to slash costs, the agency reduced personnel from 48 in 1991 to 17 currently, he said.
The agency runs lean, but that still doesn’t resolve budget shortfalls. The county government, he said, has no authority to raise revenue, which puts them in a tough spot. They must grapple with the statehouse to lobby for local infrastructure. All the while, constituents view the government as the enemy, yet still expect it to provide basic services, like infrastructure.
Serving taxpayers meant looking at ways to curb costs while still delivering on its promise. According to Palmer, the current ratio is 540 miles of paved versus 260 miles of unpaved, compared to a 600 to 200 ratio in 1991.
The move to converting a portion of its roads back to gravel has been a boon to the community in some ways. He said the converted roads, which are gravel with a layer of crushed limestone, are holding up well. Taxpayer feedback has been largely positive or neutral.
“By using the lowest common denominator, some people are glad that they are getting off roads that were once deplorable,” he said.
Others have asked when the roads will be repaved and see the gravel as a temporary measure. This calls for some education on the part of the county. Only when revenue matches the costs of the investment will the county be able to return to exclusively paved roads, he said.
Palmer is aware that day might never come if the status quo remains. That’s why he encourages public works leaders to take a proactive approach to infrastructure. Sometimes that calls for going back to gravel roads. His advice? “Enter into it with the understanding that it’s not going to be easy,” he said. “You gotta fight … to convince leaders at the state and federal levels that infrastructure is critical.”