CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - It may be too early to call it a trend, but mile by mile, counties are returning hard-surfaced road to gravel to save money and to save the rest of their local road systems.
"It's not an easy thing to tell people they're going from pavement to gravel," said Allamakee County Engineer Brian Ridenour.
He's had to tell villages in the far northeast corner of Iowa the county will no longer seal-coat some roads. So far, Ridenour said, it's only a couple of miles, "but I expect to see more."
Washington County Engineer David Patterson made the same decision on a 1-mile stretch of old U.S. 218 near Riverside. Another 6 miles of hard-surfaced road could go back to gravel, he said.
"Nobody who lives on a hard-surface road wants to see it go to gravel," he said.
Patterson and Ridenour aren't alone in their "back to gravel" approach.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, in Michigan, at least 38 of the 83 counties have converted some asphalt roads to gravel in recent years. Last year, South Dakota turned at least 100 miles of asphalt road surfaces to gravel. Some counties in Ohio are simply letting roads erode to gravel.
Vacating little-used roads is a possibility, but "it's not very popular" and it's difficult, said Ridenour, who has vacated some roads over the years.
Nationwide, only a third of the highway system is hard-surfaced.
Allamakee and Washington counties have a smaller percentage of hard-surfaced roads. In Washington County, there are 170 miles of hard-surface roads, 660 miles of gravel and 98 miles of dirt roads. Allamakee County has 700 miles of gravel roads and 170 miles of paved roads.
Even with fewer miles of hard-surfaced roads, Patterson said counties are at a "tipping point."
"There are a lot of people having this conversation, because it costs more to maintain these roads than we have in income," Patterson said.
"We're definitely evaluating this for the future," Patterson said. "The system continues to deteriorate. We have to make the decision to reinvest or offer less service i.e., rougher roads, less maintenance. It seems like we're going backward."
That's because counties are caught in a money squeeze. Road maintenance and construction revenues are basically flat.
Iowa's gasoline tax has been 21 cents since 2008; its tax on ethanol-blended gasoline, 19 cents since 1989, according to Department of Revenue spokesman Roger Stirler. The Iowa Legislative Services Agency reported this month that state fuel-tax revenue is 7.3 percent less than its March 2008 peak, largely because of increased fuel efficiency.
Asphalt prices are tied to petroleum prices, so the cost of maintaining hard-surface roads has been escalating. Ridenour estimates he could apply seal coat a thin layer of asphalt topped with three-eighths-inch gravel for about $7,000 a mile 10 years ago. Today, the cost is about $20,000 a mile.
In addition to the miles returned to gravel, Allamakee County has ground off more than 15 miles of seal coat shoulders because it can't afford to maintain them.
"I am reluctant to say this is the beginning of a trend," said Lyle Brehm, Tama County engineer. "A few other counties said they were moving to do the same, but I need to see it happen first. My hunch is there will be several miles of pavement that are in terrible condition but are still paved in the future."
In many cases, traffic count determines whether a road remains hard-surface, said Buchanan County Engineer Brian Keierleber. Typically, paving is more economical than rock if the annual average daily traffic count is 200 or more, he said.
Patterson said such numbers may no longer apply, because counties have to face the fact they don't have money to maintain some hard-surface roads. Some miles of low traffic, hard-surfaced roads may have to be sacrificed so heavily traveled roads can be maintained, he said.
The key, Patterson said, is that once a road is returned to gravel, it will cost the county about $2,000 a year to maintain compared with $5,000 or more per mile for lane markings, salt and other maintenance costs.