National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.


 Counties turn some paved roads back to gravel

By Charles Taylor

Several counties across the country are going back to the Stone Age — turning asphalt roads back to gravel, or considering doing so — as rising costs outstrip their ability to maintain their pavements.

Counties in Iowa, Michigan, California and South Dakota are among those that have decided either to stop maintaining a percentage of their asphalt roads or to pulverize some paved roads and downgrade them to gravel.

“In local commission rooms or council chambers or board rooms, the economic issue always comes up first. And when you cannot afford to maintain the pavements in a safe and a serviceable condition, you have to look at something else,” said Ken Skorseth, an expert whom some colleagues refer to as Mr. Gravel Roads. He is lead author of the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) gravel roads bible, Gravel Roads Maintenance and Design Manual.


Photo courtesy of Brown County, S.D.

A too-heavy truck tore up asphalt pavement on an already-failing County Road 16 in Brown County, S.D. last spring. Such vehicles have helped shorten the life span of roads nationwide, making some paved roads costly to maintain, leading some counties to consider gravel.

While costs vary from state to state, he said that in parts of South Dakota, “you can place 8 inches of gravel surfacing for the cost of 1 inch of asphalt pavement.”

County Engineer David Patterson, Washington County, Iowa, said, “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.” Increases include the price of asphalt, a petroleum product, which fluctuates with oil prices; local revenue shortfalls have accompanied the nationwide economic downturn.

In Sonoma County, Calif., it would take an estimated $55 million a year to maintain the county’s road network in its current condition, according to county officials. But the county can only afford to budget about $5 million annually using existing revenues.

So last month, the Board of Supervisors, citing economic necessity, voted to prioritize maintenance of its 1,384 miles of roadways to just 150 miles or 11 percent. The priority miles comprise about 30 roads that were chosen based on the overlap of three criteria: being part of the federal highway system, being deemed regionally significant and carrying a volume of 5,000 average daily trips.

“We’re not saying we’re walking away from our roads. Clearly safety is always  the highest priority,” said Phil Demery, the county’s transportation and public works director. He is also president of the National Association of County Engineers this year and sees similar trends nationwide. The county will continue to make basic repairs on low-priority roads.

The county’s road maintenance budget shortfall stems primarily from declining gas tax revenues, which haven’t been indexed at the federal level since 1994, and a state funding formula that favors areas more urban than Sonoma County, he said. In addition, drivers of more fuel-efficient vehicles are using less gasoline, meaning less tax collected on the gallons sold, and in the current economy, people may be driving less, he added.

While some residents have complained about Sonoma County’s road priority plan, voters were unwilling to approve fees that could have helped. Last month, county residents rejected a local ballot measure, Measure W, which would have added $10 to vehicle registration fees — a portion of which would have been used to improve, maintain and rehabilitate roads. The measure failed by a 43 percent to 57 percent vote. Some observers say it lost because only 23 percent of the money raised would have gone to road maintenance; nearly three times as much would have gone to public transit.

With the resources it has, Sonoma County will continue to fill potholes on non-priority roads. However, “at some point, the roads not on a priority system, it 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,” Demery said.

That’s exactly what happened in Brown County, S.D., and not everyone was pleased. Public reaction was “extremely negative,” according to the county’s highway superintendent, when a section of road was downgraded to gravel. One resident complained, “What the h--- are you doing with this road?” Schools voiced concerns about bus routes.

“There are some public relations issues that go along with unpaved versus paved roads,” said John Habermann, who heads up Indiana’s LTAP program and has conducted seminars about the revival of gravel roads titled “Back to the Stone Age.” “There would be some dust considerations to deal with. Some of the landowners who have grown accustomed to pavement, now living on a gravel road, may expect some dust control to go along with that.”

In Brown County, 500 of the county’s 680 miles of road are paved; 150 miles can be maintained with the current budget of $7 million per year.

Nationwide, many county roads are reaching the end of their projected life spans, shortened by the traffic counts and loads they carry. The problem is most acute in rural areas, but Demery says some small municipalities are also affected.

“We have 21st century traffic driving on 19th century roads,” Patterson said.

In some areas, mammoth farm equipment has caused damage to pristine roads in just a matter of days. But the “ag” industry isn’t the only culprit, Demery is quick to add. Concrete haulers and multi-axle semis can cause similar damage. According to FHWA, in 2008 there were there were 2.7 million miles of public paved roads in the United States and 1.3 million miles of unpaved roads.

While gravel roads can be cheaper to lay in, they may not be a bargain in the long run; upfront costs can be lower, but maintaining them can be costly without the proper resources. Habermann said questions for counties considering gravel roads include the source of the gravel — the farther away it comes from, the higher the cost. Will traffic volumes require more frequent road maintenance, and do counties have the equipment and expertise to maintain gravel roads? Skorseth says gravel roads can perform well if average daily traffic is about 150 vehicles, but costs can rise if a jurisdiction doesn’t have trained motor grader operators.

“We don’t have a large pool of skilled maintenance operators in this country,” he explained. “If you quickly revert a lot of miles of asphalt back to gravel, you face that issue immediately.”

His advice for counties considering going back to gravel? “The first thing we tell them is be sure you have accurate data on traffic volume and type, because if traffic volume, particularly truck traffic, is high when you calculate a life cycle, it may not be cheaper to go back to gravel.”