Back to the future: Is a gravel road coming to your neighborhood?

In the November 2017 issue of Harper’s magazine, Dala Maharidge recounts a story.

In the summer of 1919, the U.S. Army wanted to see if it was possible to move tanks and trucks from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, a distance of 3,251 miles. More than half the route was dirt track. Slowed by sand and “gumbo mud,” the convoy managed an average speed of 6.07 miles per hour. The journey took two months. A young lieutenant colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower was on the mission; it made him a lifelong advocate for good roads.

After Eisenhower became president, he signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which established funding for what became known as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Thus began decades of work on the 42,000-mile system, which was declared finished only on October 14, 1992, with the completion of a section of I-70 in the Colorado Rockies.

The interstate system that Eisenhower initiated in the US is a marvel and cannot fail to impress anyone who has driven on it. It is not that other countries do not have highways or even better ones. It is just the sheer extent of the system, the criss-cross pattern that makes even the remotest parts of this huge country accessible. Its creation can also be taken as symbolic of the high point of US investment in infrastructure when roads, airports, national parks, and other public systems were seen as things of value that we all benefited from and were a source of pride.

Maharidge says that the interstate system also spawned great improvements in secondary and tertiary roads that were once gravel or dirt but now became paved over with asphalt, giving people even in rural areas smooth rides. All this was largely paid for with federal and state gasoline taxes. But gasoline taxes have not been increased and thus eroded by inflation. State and local budgets have also been hit by anti-tax fervor that has reduced revenues and thus have little to spare for the maintenance of state and local roads. As a result, it is getting harder and harder to maintain the quality of the paved roads. Already, Maharidge notes, “more than half of the nation’s major rural routes are in “fair,” “mediocre,” or “poor” condition.”

Complaints about potholed roads are common and local communities struggle with what to do about it

Some experts have concluded that it’s better to “depave” and let failing asphalt roads return to gravel. With budgets tight, their reasoning goes, this would at least provide motorists with a better driving experience than would a broken-down paved road. Also, a gravel road is cheaper to maintain than a paved road. Studies by more than a dozen different agencies around the nation show the range for gravel maintenance costs: from $2,000 to more than $8,000 per mile annually. And for pavement: from $13,000 to $37,000.

He told me that gravel is often better on a low-volume road because unlike pavement, it can be maintained by one operator with a single machine, a grader with a wide blade that makes it smooth. “I call it upgrading to gravel,” he said, since “many failing pavements are actually more dangerous to drive on than untreated gravel surfaces.”

One wonders haw far this depaving process will go. It will start with rural roads that are lightly traveled. But those roads are also the ones used by heavy farm equipment that will tear them up quickly. It is inevitable that the depaving process will slowly expand to busier roads. But the savings to local governments by depaving roads will lead to higher costs for users since the wear and tear on vehicles is much greater. One study notes that “The estimated cost for operating a vehicle on a gravel road is 14.33 cents per mile higher than on a paved road. . . . Although this cost is significant, it is borne by vehicle owners and not the agency.” So basically, this continues the trend of shifting costs to individuals. Since the people who live in rural areas are often poorer, they will bear the brunt of the increased costs, while you can be sure that the areas that have the wealthiest residents will have their roads fixed first, since it would be unconscionable for rich people to be jarred by driving over potholes.

With Republican demands to cut government spending, we can expect deterioration is public facilities across the board and the decay of the once-proud road system is the harbinger of what is to come. As the Environmental Protection Agency is systematically undermined, perhaps at some point we cannot depend on clean water to come out of our faucets and people will have to dig their own wells. As the electricity grid deteriorates due to lack of upgrades and the cost of electricity rises due to not investing in renewable sources, we might need to use kerosene lamps as back up. And finally, maybe riding horses may turn out to be the best way of traveling over the gravel and dirt roads that once were paved.

Making America great again, baby, just like it was back in the nineteenth century!


  1. jrkrideau says

    As the Environmental Protection Agency is systematically undermined, perhaps at some point we cannot depend on clean water to come out of our faucets

    Ah, Flint?

  2. says

    Once again the irony here is that the people who will be most affected by all of this are the ones who keep voting for the people who put them into this mess in the first.

  3. kestrel says

    You can add dams to that list of infrastructure that will be defunded. We are currently trying to get funding to repair a dam and apparently, our dam failing won’t kill quite enough people to justify repairing it. Who cares if it’s in a widely visited state park and will “only” kill several hundred people. Not the government.

  4. lanir says

    I had niavely thought, back when the Republicans just ran Congress, that this was just an opportunity they wanted to save for themselves. It’s trivial. The money makes itself. It would easily funnel rewards back to the places that elected them without them really doing more than fixing things they’d known were breaking for decades. Businesses need roads so this is a stupidly obvious win-win.

    Instead… We get breathtaking shortsightedness.

  5. davidc1 says

    Over here in good old GB the highway depts of the local councils find it cheaper to pay out for damage done to cars by pot holes rather than spend money on maintaining the roads .

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