Towns rolling up pavement for gravel

Posted Dec. 20, 2009, at 8:30 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Ever since the invention of the automobile, paved roads have meant progress. Now some cash-strapped towns and counties are finding progress too expensive, and they are tearing up battered roads and putting down gravel.

The high price of pavement and the sour economy have driven municipalities in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Vermont to roll up the asphalt — a mile here, a few miles there, mostly on back roads — rather than repave.

Some drivers don’t like it and warn of danger ahead, including mud, dust and damage to their cars.

“It kind of looks like we’re going a step back rather than a step forward,” said Randy Stearns, who heads the road commission in Montcalm County, Mich., which this year turned more than 10 miles of pavement into gravel.

But supporters say that gravel roads are cheaper to maintain and can be just fine in lightly traveled parts of the countryside.

Besides, to some people, dirt roads recall a simpler time when life was slower and folks knew their neighbors.

“Do we really need to keep getting fancier? This is also about quality of life,” said Richard Beal, a town selectman in Cranberry Isles, population 118, which got its first paved roads in the 1960s but is considering ripping some of them up rather than spending the $500,000 or so he said is needed next year to fix them.

The U.S. has more than 1.4 million miles of unpaved public roads, according to the Department of Transportation.

Paved roads are particularly susceptible to deterioration in cold-weather states, where they take a beating from freeze-and-thaw cycles and road salt. Ultimately, potholes, cracks and heaves can make a paved road dangerous to both car and driver.

The idea of turning a beat-up road into gravel isn’t totally new. But with tax revenue plunging off a cliff because of the economy and asphalt prices doubling over the past three years to $400 a ton, rural towns are increasingly looking at gravel.

States have received federal stimulus dollars for roads and bridges, but municipalities, for the most part, have been left in the dust.

In Michigan, more than 50 miles of paved county roads have been converted to gravel in the past few years, according to the County Road Association of Michigan. Most of those roads are lightly traveled, but this year one county turned a 10-mile stretch of primary road into gravel for lack of money, said association spokeswoman Monica Ware.

“Michigan’s funding situation has been dire for years and now it’s gotten critical,” Ware said.

David Speicher, of Bangor, Mich., led a successful petition drive to prevent his road from being torn up. He said gravel roads tend to beat up cars, and the dust in the summer would make it impossible for him to hang his clothes outside to dry.

The road also would be impassable in the wet spring and fall, he said.

“We wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere because the muck wouldn’t have been able to hold our cars up,” he said.

Pavement and gravel both have environmental drawbacks. Paved roads require more salt and de-icing chemicals, and asphalt, which is derived from petroleum, releases volatile substances into storm runoff. Near gravel roads, sediment runoff is a major polluter of streams, and the dust can hurt vegetation.

Joel Garreau, an author who writes about technology and culture, said Americans want modern conveniences but also like to romanticize the past. He said they might enjoy driving on horse-and-buggy roads in a car with a GPS and other gizmos.

“They want to merge the 21st century with the 18th century, and it’s that combination that seems to resonate,” said Garreau, who lives on a gravel road in Virginia.

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