Minnesota counties are converting paved roads back to gravel roads

Courtesy of MinnPost/Freeborn County

One way to cut road maintenance costs is to convert deteriorating paved roads back to gravel roads. It seems unthinkable, but is it?

As roads paved decades ago deteriorate and road maintenance budgets stagnate, unpaving looks like an increasingly economical — if initially unpopular — option, according to a recent MinnPost article by Greta Kaul.

The practice of converting paved roads to unpaved is relatively widespread nationwide. Citing a 2016 report by National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine’s Transportation Research Board, Kaul reported that at least seven Minnesota counties have converted paved roads back to gravel roads. And more are considering the prospect.

Counties, townships maintain majority of roads

Overall, elected officials in Minnesota are responsible for more than 135,000 miles of city, county, townships and state roads. While much attention is focused on state roads, they account for less than 10 percent of all roads in the state. Counties maintain about 45,000 miles of road and townships maintain another 60,000 miles.

Nationwide, the report found nearly 70 projects in 27 states that unpaved 550 miles of road. And that has researchers developing a guide to help local officials decide when it’s safe and cost-effective to unpave roads.

For now, economics are driving the decisions. When Freeborn County officials decided to unpave what was once a two-mile stretch of asphalt on County State Aid Road 49, there wasn’t money in the budget to fix the pavement.

No engineer wants to unpave a road, Freeborn County Engineer Sue Miller told MinnPost. It’s more than a reduction in the level of service to everyone who uses the road.

With the cost of adding gravel and grading, Miller said, it’s often more expensive in the long-term. The difference is when the money is spent.  Gravel doesn’t require the same kind of up-front investment that building or doing a big maintenance project on asphalt does.