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Cash-strapped municipalities weigh gravel roads, delayed maintenance

By Justin Kern
Special to The Daily Reporter

The drive through Forest County could be a bit bumpier starting next summer.

Faced with rising road maintenance costs and no increase to its $654,000 highway department budget from last year, the northern Wisconsin county is considering pulverizing some deteriorating paved roads into a mix of gravel and asphalt in an effort to cut costs.

“As far as dollarwise, it’s expensive to do initially, but eventually the cost is much lower to take care of them. It may get to that,” said John Rogers, Forest County highway commissioner.

Forest County is not alone, as more cash-strapped and rural counties and municipalities consider suspending maintenance to paved roads or converting the surfaces to gravel-and-asphalt mixtures.

Roadwork costs can add up quickly. Tearing up a dilapidated paved road and mixing it with gravel as a road surface costs $40,000 a mile, Rogers said. In contrast, repaving a road with hot asphalt costs $75,000 a mile, he said, an amount that fluctuates because asphalt is petroleum-based and tied to the price of oil.

Adding a chip seal surface, a gravel-and-asphalt mixture that can add years to a worn road, costs about $30,000 a mile, an option Rogers said his department is also considering for paved roads in need of work.

Returning county roads to their gravel state from years ago costs about $30,000 a mile, Rogers said.

Moving from traditional paved roads is an “unfortunate” solution to a nationwide road repair budget crunch, said Larry Galehouse, director of the National Center for Pavement Preservation at Michigan State University.

Reverting paved roads to gravel mixtures can worsen driving conditions and hurt commerce and the quality of life, Galehouse said.

He pointed to a lack of money from the top: Federal aid only directly covers about 4 percent of roadways, leaving states, counties and municipalities to take care of more than 3 million miles of roads, according to the pavement preservation organization.

In some populated counties — such as Milwaukee, Waukesha and Walworth — officials refuse to consider losing any paved roadways.

“We’d be willing to let other stuff go first,” said Walworth County public works superintendent Larry Price.

Likewise, the state Department of Transportation has no plans to put off work on any of its roads or to let state roads go to gravel, said regional communications director Dennis Shook.

But at the municipal level, budgets and road plans are less certain.

In the town of Florence in northeastern Wisconsin, road maintenance takes up slightly more than half of the town’s overall $1.32 million budget, and the money available for road maintenance usually rises only through increases to the tax levy, said Judy Gehlhoff, the town’s deputy clerk and treasurer.

Nearly half of the town’s 119 miles of road have been gravel for years, but a problem arises when unanticipated work is needed on a paved roadway, Gehlhoff said. The high price of materials such as asphalt has forced the town to delay repairs to some paved roads, with work often done in parts over a few years, she said.

“Now, we’re having some problems on certain streets,” Gehlhoff said, “and we don’t know where that (repair money) is going to come from.”

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