Squeezed by tight maintenance budgets and rising pavement costs, Minnesota counties consider another option for roads: unpaving them

Courtesy of Freeborn County
County State Aid 49 in Freeborn County before it was unpaved.

It was the spring of 2016 when Freeborn County officials decided to unpave what was once a two-mile asphalt stretch of highway southwest of Albert Lea.

Or, as county public works director Sue Miller puts it, a gravel truck decided for them.

The hauler broke up the surface on a stretch of County Highway 49 past the point of practical repair. It was during spring load restrictions when thaw softens the soil under roads and makes them more vulnerable to damage from heavy loads. Freeborn County’s rich soil is great for crops, not so much for roads.

“When the heavier loads go over it, especially during spring load restrictions when there’s no hard base … the tires crack it up,” Miller said — you get 10 to 15-inch chunks of asphalt popping out of the surface.

The county decided there wasn’t money in the budget to fix the pavement, so it sent a reclaimer to break up the asphalt and turn it into an unpaved road.

Freeborn County joins several Minnesota counties that have converted asphalt roads back to gravel in recent years, according to a 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Transportation Research Board.

And more counties may soon be joining them. As roads paved decades ago deteriorate past the critical stage and road maintenance budgets stagnate, unpaving looks like an increasingly economical — if initially unpopular — option.

Back to gravel

There isn’t comprehensive data on how common road unpaving is. Since the prospect of turning roads to gravel often causes public outcry, it’s not something local governments are always eager to talk about.

Across the U.S., the Transportation Research Board’s report found nearly 70 projects by local, state and federal agencies in 27 states that unpaved 550 miles of road. The report isn’t comprehensive; it’s based on surveys of local governments that had the option to respond or not. In Minnesota, seven counties detailed unpaving projects they were considering or had already undertaken — Clearwater, Dodge, Freeborn, Mahnomen, Norman, Jackson and St. Louis.

Laura Fay, research scientist at the Western  Transportation Institute at Montana State University who worked on the report, said that while unpaving roads isn’t a huge part of pavement management, she was surprised to find how common the practice is.

Roads that were candidates for unpaving tended to be rural, deteriorating and saw less than 150 vehicles travel over them in an average day.

Though she doesn’t have data on it, Fay said she gets the sense unpaving roads is becoming more common, as many roads become too expensive for roads departments to maintain.

“Funding to local road programs is not really increasing, but the cost of maintaining them is,” Fay said.

In light of their findings, the researchers are developing a guide to help local officials decide when it’s safe and cost-effective to unpave roads, and how to best do it.

State and federal funding

County officials in Minnesota say they’re hoping to see the state and federal government put more money into local infrastructure — and soon.

“We need transportation investment on the federal level and on the state level,” Miller, of Freeborn County, said. “That’s what our farm economy rides on, and if we want to be sustainable with our economy down here, we need those roads.”

In Minnesota, roads are funded through a combination of federal highway funding, state funding (which comes largely from gas taxes, license tab fees and vehicle sales tax), and local tax levies.

Of the roads that have been unpaved in Minnesota, some are funded with the help of the state, while others are maintained with local tax levies. Regardless, the decision to unpave was, in most cases, the result of county transportation budgets stretched thin over too many miles of highway, county engineers said, putting low-traffic country roads at low priority levels for pavement maintenance.

County State Aid 49 in Freeborn County after it was unpaved.
Courtesy of Freeborn County
County State Aid 49 in Freeborn County after it was unpaved.

Lawmakers have struggled to agree on a way to fund transportation in Minnesota. Last year, the legislature passed a measure that injected funding into transportation, but critics say the deal — which didn’t dedicate any new revenue for transit projects — fell short of what’s needed to maintain the state’s infrastructure.

“It’s been fairly flat funding. It has not kept up with inflation,” said Mahnomen County Engineer Jonathan Large, who oversaw the conversion of a two-mile stretch of County Road 15, a low-traffic road, to unpaved surface in 2012.

“We’re not able to do any kind of what I would call improvements to the roadways,” he said — widening shoulders or flattening the slopes off the sides. “We’re not able to widen them like we’d like to for safety, we have to just work on the surface.”

Also at issue, Large said, is that the state is turning roads in its trunk highway system over to counties whose road budgets are already stretched thin.

“There’s more roads and more miles that are having to be funded with the same amount of money,” he said.

Large said he hopes to see the legislature improve funding in a steady fashion.

Not keeping up

At some point, it’s more practical to unpave. Southeastern Minnesota’s Dodge County is unpaving a three-mile stretch of County Aid Road 6, a road funded entirely with county levies.

For a three-mile stretch like this, County Engineer Guy Kohlnhofer said he has three options: One, resurface the road for about $700,000. Two, grind the asphalt into aggregate and leave the stretch unpaved in one shot for about $50,000.

And then there’s a third option: Dodge County is gradually unpaving the road, as the potholes become too pronounced. Kohnlhofer estimates the county’s about a third of the way done unpaving the stretch, one piece at a time.

Like many paved rural roads, County Road 6 was paved in the ’70s, when asphalt was a lot cheaper. It was overlayed in the 1990s, when asphalt cost about a third of what it does today, Kohnlhofer said.

There are a handful of houses on the road, and he hasn’t heard a complaint, he said. With average daily traffic of less than 100 cars per day, now that there’s a road — one that receives state aid — a mile away.

“It’s a road that wouldn’t be paved today because we have much higher priorities,” he said.

That was a common refrain among county engineers. Many of the roads that were unpaved in recent years were paved in the 1970s. Today, they said, the roads would never have been paved in the first place.

Jackson County, in southwestern Minnesota, unpaved a two-mile stretch of road in 2012 that was no longer seeing much traffic after another road more-or-less replaced it. Nobody lived on the road, and once highway department officials explained the case for unpaving it to city officials, the decision was made, said County Engineer Tim Stahl.

But it’s the priority roads that worry county engineers.

Kohlnhofer said when he started as a county engineer 20 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to have a big construction project, say the reconstruction of 3-6 miles of road, going on every year to every-other-year.

Three years ago, Dodge County reconstructed a road using federal funds, but “I don’t picture reconstructing another stretch of road until I retire, and I’m only 53,” he said.

Far from undertaking big maintenance projects, the county’s focus has become much more narrow — namely, maintaining the center 24 feet of roads, because of limited funds, says Kohlnhofer. That would be fine, if everyone stayed inside the white lines, but there’s deer and ice and other unforeseen obstacles, he said.

“If you go off the shoulder, they’re steep, you may roll off,” he said.

And then there’s the gravel roads that shouldn’t be gravel roads, Kohnlhofer said, like a township road in Dodge County that about 1,000 cars travel every day.

“It’s more expensive yearly to maintain a gravel road with high traffic, the problem is coming up with the initial $350,00o to $4o0,000 a mile to pave it upfront,” he said.

Short for years

No engineer wants to unpave a road, Miller said. It’s a reduction in the level of service to everyone who uses it, plus, with the cost of adding gravel and grading, it’s often more expensive long-term — it just doesn’t require the same kind of up-front investment that building or doing a big maintenance project on asphalt does. But when you’re county is running $5 to $ 6 million dollars short per year just to take care of pavement, you start looking at unpaving as an option, Miller said.

Miller said Freeborn County — with a lot of miles in its road system relative to the number of residents — is hoping it doesn’t have to unpave more roads down the line.

Jackson County, too, but it might be too late.

“I’ve told legislators it’s already too late for some roads … even with an improvement in funding I don’t think we can turn the corner on unpaving roads,” Stahl said.

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Steve Carlson on 01/25/2018 - 11:40 am.

    Road miles per capita

    Minnesota has the 4th-most road miles of any state in the country. We’re the 21st-largest state by population and the 12th-largest state by area. The problem’s pretty obvious. We have way too many roads.

  2. Submitted by John Ferman on 01/25/2018 - 11:43 am.

    Trucks

    If a heavy truck did the damage, why can’t the county go after them for the repair money?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/25/2018 - 12:16 pm.

      Here’s Why

      This is America, where profits are private but loses are socialized.

      Next thing you’ll be asking professional sports franchise to pay for their own palaces.

  3. Submitted by John Ferman on 01/25/2018 - 11:47 am.

    Why unpave

    As it costs money to strip away the asphalt chunks and lay graded gravel, why not just let the road deteriorate naturally. If they don’t have the money to repave, where will the gravel road money come from. The same empty bucket.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 01/25/2018 - 04:02 pm.

      I would think

      that letting the road deteriorate naturally would increase the potential for accidents and severe vehicle damage.
      That said, I would love to show this article to my own city council, who seems hellbent on paving every road in our rural community.

  4. Submitted by Pat Berg on 01/25/2018 - 11:49 am.

    Three things:

    1) Grading

    2) Plowing

    3 Spring mud

    I hope they’re considering ALL of those as they make these decisions!

    • Submitted by Dave Carlson on 01/25/2018 - 07:20 pm.

      …and a fourth:

      Bicycling… with more folks biking all around the state, gravel roads limit mobility unless you use a mountain or wide-tired bike (and then those three things kick in).

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/25/2018 - 12:23 pm.

    Connect The DOTs

    Grover Norquist says we can’t raise the gas tax, even though the cost of asphalt and labor go up every year.

    Residents of rural counties vote for small government, and that’s what they’re getting. Metro counties have levied wheelage taxes and sales taxes to fund transportation. Why don’t rural counties do the same instead of looking for federal or state funding? Oh yeah, they don’t have the tax base. Voting for candidates that slam those evil metro folks is fun, but it does have consequences. If you can’t stomach state aid for LRT, don’t expect state aid for a road that only gets 500 vehicles/day.

    Department of Transportation? More like Department of Duh.

    • Submitted by Patrick Tice on 01/25/2018 - 03:44 pm.

      Greater Minnesota voted for the GOP

      And now they expect the Metro counties to pave their cowpaths with money saved from denying LRT and kicking out immigrants (who are supposedly all on welfare.) All of this will be paid for with tax cuts. Magic!

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/25/2018 - 12:59 pm.

    Consequences

    This is a tactic that’s being adopted fairly widely in Texas, which is not only much larger than Minnesota, but, like Minnesota, has thousands of miles of what are termed (and labeled) “Farm-to-Market” roads, and a rural population hostile to higher taxes. Many of those roads, just as described in Greta’s article, were paved several decades ago, and the cost of repaving is simply more than locals are willing to pay.

    Having followed the Oregon Trail (in many rural stretches the 19th century wagon trail has simply been graded to become a county road) through Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Easter Oregon, and having done so more than once, I can personally vouch for the fact that gravel roads can be made serviceable for modern vehicles, though with varying degrees of success. That variation is because they’re typically funded and maintained by counties, rather than states, and, as the article makes plain, counties generally have far less to work with in terms of operating and maintenance funding.

    Eastern Colorado and western Nebraska both sport a surprisingly good network of gravel roads that are pretty much all-weather. That latter term – “all-weather” – is an important distinction. As Pat Berg has implied, a “gravel” road that’s mostly dirt will simply become a quagmire that no one can use in wet weather. The gravel road has to be predominantly actual gravel, meaning crushed rock, not just dirt, and crushed rock costs more than dirt. It also has to be renewed on a fairly regular basis, as small rocks sink into the underlying soil from the weight of traffic, and a gravel road has to be graded regularly. Otherwise it quickly becomes the dreaded “washboard’ surface that not even farmers like. It’s also worth noting that gravel roads, unlike paved ones, are often **not** cleared of snow unless it’s a substantial snowfall. When a “clipper” comes through and leaves only an inch of snow on the ground, clearing that snow would also scrape away much of the road’s gravel surface, and thus be counterproductive.

    This syndrome is, sorry to say, a fairly direct consequence of hostility to government and taxes, since it’s government and taxes that provide the roads. Many a rural Minnesotan should be familiar with the Biblical axiom that “You reap what you sow.” Those who are reflexively opposed to taxes need to be aware that most of the money to maintain whatever all-weather roads they have in their respective counties is generated in the more heavily-settled parts of the state via gasoline and other taxes and fees. It’s one of several reasons why I’d personally support an increase in the fuel tax, which I’ve read hasn’t been raised in Minnesota in a generation. Lacking that sort of increase, however, I suspect more and more secondary roads will revert to gravel.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/25/2018 - 01:07 pm.

    And

    With the $1.5T billionaire tax give away package its only going to get worse! Looks like more of those small governemnt, I’d rather spend my $ on Walmart junk than infrastructure chickens are coming home to roost.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/27/2018 - 09:19 am.

    Republican infrastructures

    This goes all the way to the Civil War- one reason the Confederates lost was they didn’t have the rail infrastructure they needed, small government in action or rather inaction.

    Someone already pointed out the fact that MN already has an incredibly extensive road system for it’s population, the 4th largest in the nation. That system wasn’t built by a small government with no budget so “out state” voters have obviously forgotten how they got their roads in the first place.

    Once again however this just highlights the shortcomings of the MNDFL. Despite the fact that Democrats pushed more road money out to rural areas when they were in power, they didn’t run on that fact when Republicans ran on the false promise of the rural-urban divide. Furthermore, when Dayton wanted to bond out even more money to rural infrastructure MNDFL legislators dialed his budget back out of fear of “over-reach”…. then the lost.

    We all knew that Republican promises of bigger budgets and more spending on rural infrastructure were either dishonest or magical thinking, yet the DFL has never developed that narrative into the effective campaign framework it would obviously be.

    It isn’t smart or realistic for those who vote for Republicans to expect more of anything from government, but no matter how predictable or obvious that is Republicans run on such promises and the DFL never runs against it.

    So here we are, Republicans promised more roads and maintenance and then let them disintegrate under grossly inadequate budgets. Instead of investing in out-state infrastructure they just spent all their time attacking urban infrastructure. The DFL is in a perfect position to say: “We told you so”… but they didn’t.

  9. Submitted by Bob Wold on 01/27/2018 - 10:33 am.

    No Free lunch

    Good Roads, Schools, Parks and Beaches all cost money, but who has to pay the money? A federal gas tax of 18 cents a gallon was established in the 1980’s. Gas was a dollar a gallon, that worked out to be a tax on gas of 18%. Today that gallon of gas costs $2.50 a gallon with the same 18 cent a gallon tax, today that tax works out to be about 7.2 percent. During that same period the MPG of gas went from 16.7 to 27.6 miles per gallon. The average income per year in the US in 1985 was 16,822 dollars a year, in 2016 the average wage was 48,692 dollars a year a 289.45% increase in wages. The consumer price index when up by over 50%. In 1980 everyone paid a high percentage of their income in taxes at every level than they did in 2017. Maybe someday someone will get an app that will help them do the math, then we will know if anything is worth paying for.

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