Cash-Strapped Towns Are Un-Paving Roads They Can’t Afford to Fix

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WHEN MONTPELIER DECIDED to rip up a pothole-riddled asphalt road and replace it with gravel in 2009, it didn’t see itself at the forefront of a growing trend in public works. It was simply responding to a citizen complaint.

City Hall received a hollering from a couple living on Bliss Road in the Vermont capital who wanted to sell their home, but feared the horrifying pavement in front of the house would scare away buyers. They had reason to be pissed off: The city of 8,000 people ranks pavement on an index of one to 100. Bliss Road scored a one.

Repaving roads is expensive, so Montpelier instead used its diminishing public works budget to take a step back in time and un-pave the road. Workers hauled out a machine called a “reclaimer” and pulverized the damaged asphalt and smoothed out the road’s exterior. They filled the space between Vermont’s cruddy soil and hardier dirt and gravel up top with a “geotextile”, a hardy fabric that helps with erosion, stability and drainage.

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In an era of dismal infrastructure spending, where the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the country’s roads a D grade, rural areas all over the country are embracing this kind of strategic retreat. Transportation agencies in at least 27 states have unpaved roads, according to a new report from the National Highway Cooperative Highway Research program. They’ve done the bulk of that work in the past five years.

“We didn’t know how prevalent this was,” says Laura Fay, an environmental science researcher with Montana State University’s Western Transportation Institute, who helped compile the report. But there’s clear reason for it. The Congressional Budget Office finds that the while public spending on transportation and water infrastructure has actually increased since 2003, the costs of asphalt, concrete, and cement have jumped even faster. With those extra expenses factored in, public expenditures on transportation infrastructure relative to cost fell by nine percent between 2003 and 2014.

Like many towns facing this recession, Montpelier has slashed its road budget. Meanwhile, several local bridges and retaining walls needed serious, urgent updates. “Asphalt’s pretty expensive,” says Tom McArdle, the city’s head of public works. By un-paving instead of repaving, Montpelier saved about $120,000—a big chunk for a city whose annual budget for street building and repairs was $1.3 million in 2009.

Not the Worst Idea?
Driving the nation’s 1.6 million miles of unpaved roads isn’t any fun and can cost consumers money, says Amy Mattinat, who owns the car maintenance shop Auto Craftsmen in Montpelier. Gravel and dirt are rough on tires, axels, suspensions, and wheel bearings, not to mention the extra work of keeping cars clean.

There are unintended consequences, too. “A lot of people in Vermont drive Priuses,” Mattinat says. “But when, after about a year or two, their Priuses just gets totally beat up, there’s a lot of people who turn in their Priuses and go back to an SUV.” Then there’s the dust. Once kicked airborne, especially silty soils can spread, and pose risks to “human, plant, animal and aquatic health,” according to the NHCRP report.
But de-paved roads aren’t ripped up willy-nilly. There are serious engineers and scientists—entire academic institutes, even—who study how to un-pave in smart ways. Crews can even tamp down dust problems by regularly applying water-absorbing calcium chloride, organic petroleum, and vegetable oils and animal fats.

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