Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Road-crunching trumps repaving in more counties

By KATHLEEN LOFTUS
Capital News Service

LANSING — Half of Michigan’s 83 counties are expected to turn paved roads to gravel this year due to insufficient funding — three times the number from 2007.

Before 2007, only 12 counties had converted paved roads into gravel, according to the County Road Association of Michigan (CRAM).

In 2009, 38 moved to gravel roads because of costs.

Today, CRAM estimates that have chosen gravel instead of repaving to keep roads safe and cost-efficient.

CRAM public relations specialist Monica Ware said counties prefer not to return roads to gravel, but without enough funding, unsafe crumbling roads must be reconstructed.

“We’re left with no choice but to unfortunately go back to gravel,” she said.

There are no comprehensive figures on the number of county roads graveled in 2010, but the number last year is estimated at nearly 200, according to CRAM.

In an a CRAM poll, 27 counties reported anticipating or having the possibility of pulverizing some roads, including Alcona, Ingham, Marquette, Montcalm and Tuscola.

Lapeer County did not return any roads to gravel last year and isn’t planning to do so soon, said Ryan Doyle, assistant highway engineer.

Of 1,200 county miles of roads, 811 are gravel.

“It’s always an option as funding goes down, but we haven’t gotten to that point,” Doyle said.

Marquette County didn’t change any roads to gravel in 2010 either, according to Jim Iwanicki, engineer manager at the road commission.

A few years ago, some roads returned to gravel after the road commission asked townships for input on the best way to use their money, Iwanicki said.

The consensus was gravel. To repave a road that lasts only seven or eight years until deterioration and required repaving is too costly, he said.

The county will analyze roads and budgets over the next year to see if more roads will be turned to gravel.

Most counties returning roads to gravel predicted one to seven miles of change in 2010, but Calhoun County anticipated graveling 25 to 40 miles of local roads.

According to CRAM, 93 percent of counties reduced road maintenance in the last three years, with an 82 percent reduction on gravel road maintenance.

Ware said the roads are still being maintained and plowed. However, on weekend and during overtime shifts, they may not be plowed until there is significant snow accumulation.

She also said it’s hard to put a price tag on how much cheaper it is to have gravel roads but the initial capital cost saves up to $200,000 to $250,000 per mile.

“It’s not a one-time expenditure. There is longer-term gravel road maintenance for keeping the roads safe. If there isn’t funding for paving a road, we need a safe gravel road.”

Revenues to county road commissions have gone down to a decade-low while expenses have increased. For example, salt has risen 200 percent, Ware said.

“No one thinks this is an ideal situation. If there were enough funding, roads would be repaved.”

“If just revenue decreased, the efficiencies implemented would be enough, but with skyrocketing costs we’ve ended up with the challenges we’re facing,” she said.

People aren’t happy about black dust produced by gravel roads, but testing confirmed the dust creates no health problems, she said.

But Gilbert Baladi, a Michigan State University civil and environmental engineering professor, said breaking up pavement and switching to gravel increases motorists’ costs. Vehicle operating costs go up, average speeds are slower causing delays and it costs the drivers more to travel on gravel than pavement.

He said more maintenance is required for the engine, loose gravel can cause more problems in the exhaust system and longer traveling time means more gas expenses.

Baladi said the quality of the roads isn’t good.

“There are so many potholes on the road, you almost have to navigate back and forth, switching lanes to avoid them,” said Baladi, an expert on pavement design and maintenance.

Baladi said dust is needed to hold gravel roads together. Every car that drives on a gravel road pushes the gravel to the sides and displaces it. Brine is put on roads to hold down dust and stabilize them.

Every so often, gravel is pushed back on the road and every year or two, fresh gravel is added.

Baladi said, “I don’t think adding gravel will save much money but it’s the only possible solution right now.”

Ben Bodkin, Michigan Association of Counties director of legislative affairs, said the state doesn’t pay counties as much as it should for essential services.

“We’re seeing slower services. Roads aren’t plowed well and they’re turning paved roads into gravel. This is not the progress I want to see,” Bodkin said.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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