I learned about Wisconsin counties converting paved roads to gravel when Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign mentioned it during a speech at Fighting Bob Fest last Saturday. Like many, I was dismayed to learn that budget cuts were forcing county governments to literally grind up asphalt roads in need of repair.
What I didn't know is that this practice has become more and more common throughout the country over the last few years.
To put it bluntly, we're going backward.
The Capital News Service of the Michigan State University reported in March that "half of Michigan’s 83 counties are expected to turn paved roads to gravel this year due to insufficient funding — three times the number from 2007."
The County News publication of the National Association of Counties described it this way in a December, 2010 news article:
Several counties across the country are going back to the Stone Age — turning asphalt roads back to gravel, or considering doing so — as rising costs outstrip their ability to maintain their pavements.
Counties in Iowa, Michigan, California and South Dakota are among those that have decided either to stop maintaining a percentage of their asphalt roads or to pulverize some paved roads and downgrade them to gravel.
Gravel roads are dustier in the summer and harder to plow in the winter than paved roads, and they're hell on automobiles. They are also not as safe as paved roads in many respects. Gravel roads are cheaper to maintain, but part of the cost savings is achieved by shifting the costs to car owners in higher gas and repair bills.
Gravel roads are not maintenance-free, however. They need to be reshaped and have gravel added frequently. In the long run, they do save money, but it reflects poorly on us as a nation that we have abandoned our rural communities in yet another way, after closing local schools, shipping manufacturing jobs overseas, and killing family farms.
In Wisconsin, devastating budget cuts in other areas like social services and recycling (yes, recycling) and new restrictions on raising local taxes are forcing local governments to cut back on road maintenance, even though the state's annual payment of $2,117 per mile stayed about the same. The municipalities don't have the revenue to make up the difference in the real cost of maintenance, so it's back to the early 1900's for many communities.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's recently enacted budget added millions of dollars for road construction, but that money is for big, private, often non-union road construction companies to build big, new, ugly freeways. Rural roads are repaired by local governments. They and their mostly union highway department employees are going to see none of the new funds.
Dirt roads are next. I knew I should have kept that buggy whip manufacturing company stock!
P.S. Does anyone know if there's a vaccine for cholera?