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Politics

States Will Use Gravel for Roads Less Traveled

Unable to pay for repairs and repaving, several states are tearing up the pavement.

Next time you’re on a back road in northern Minnesota, expect to kick up some gravel and dust. The state is one of several that is ripping up old pavement on select, lightly traveled back roads and replacing it with crushed gravel.

It’s all about budget savings. Tight state finances are forcing transportation departments and many county road commissions to forgo costly repaving of hard-surface roads that are in disrepair and not considered vital commercial routes, such as those connecting farming towns or timberlands.

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Twenty-four Michigan counties are turning a few hundred miles of rarely used rural back roads into cheaper gravel roads. Local governments are doing the same in Indiana, Vermont and Pennsylvania, saving tens of millions in the process (no estimate yet on what it will cost motorists in added wear and tear on their vehicles).

More states will follow suit, but only on roads that require little maintenance. The budget math tells the story. The price of road asphalt has doubled in the past three years to about $400 a ton, and it will probably stay high as long as oil prices are high.

Gravel is dirt cheap by comparison -- around $20 a ton. Gravel roads may require some extra maintenance and inspection work, but not much if they don’t carry much traffic.Local gravel companies may benefit, but residents in some areas are pushing back. Opponents say that gravel roads need more maintenance, especially after snow and ice storms, and that ruts can become driving hazards.

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Critics of Michigan’s road replacement projects call them shortsighted. They have started a lobbying campaign to increase public awareness of road replacement projects and to restore funding for hard-surface roads.

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