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Tight Times Put Gravel On The Road

Gravel roads, once a symbol of quaint times, are emerging as a sign of financial struggle in a growing number of rural towns.

High costs and tight budgets have prompted communities in Maine, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Vermont to convert or consider converting their cracked asphalt roads back to gravel to cut maintenance costs, officials in those states say.

David Creamer, field operations specialist at the Center for Dirt and Gravel Road Studies at Pennsylvania State University, says new technology allows asphalt to be recycled into a durable gravel-like surface that is cheaper to maintain and adequately prevents potholes and mud.

Thirty-eight of Michigan's counties replaced a total of 100 miles of asphalt roads with gravel because of decreasing funds in 2008-09, said Monica Ware, public relations specialist for County Road Association of Michigan.

In Montcalm County, Mich., 10 miles were converted to cut patching costs in 2009, said Randy Stearns, managing director of the road commission for Montcalm County. He cited one road that cost a combined $39,244 in 2008 and early 2009 for patching, but only $7,300 to crush into gravel. More roads may be converted this summer, he said.

A 2006 study by the University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies found gravel is cost-effective at an average daily traffic of 200 vehicles or less.

Even so, some have concerns.

"None of these decisions should be made overnight," said Chris Plaushin, director of federal relations at AAA. "I think that gravel brings some conditions that they may not be used to. The drivers are going to have to exert a little more caution."


Hancock County, Ind. County engineer and superintendent Joe Copeland said budget cuts required 11 miles to be converted last year. "They are holding up well," he said. Copeland said about three more miles may be converted this year.

Cranberry Isles, Maine. Town Selectman Richard Beal says high asphalt and transportation costs led him to support gravel. The town will decide March 8 whether to replace its three major roads, he said.

Resident Gaile Colby, who lives on one of the roads being considered, called it a terrible idea. "Have you ever lived on a gravel road? In the summer it's like clouds of (dirt) coming through your house," Colby said.

Tuscarora State Forest, Pa. The Department of Forestry converted three miles to gravel in 2008 and 2009, Forest Program Manager Matthew Beaver said, and more could be converted this year.

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