Why Paved Roads Are Being Converted to Gravel

Is the left to blame for unpaved roads?

Both Stephen Green and Ed Driscoll both link to this article, which describes a trend of replacing paved roads with gravel roads in Michigan and other states.

Paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue. State money for local roads was cut in many places amid budget shortfalls.

In Michigan, at least 38 of the 83 counties have converted some asphalt roads to gravel in recent years. Last year, South Dakota turned at least 100 miles of asphalt road surfaces to gravel. Counties in Alabama and Pennsylvania have begun downgrading asphalt roads to cheaper chip-and-seal road, also known as “poor man’s pavement.” Some counties in Ohio are simply letting roads erode to gravel.

Both Driscoll and Green obliquely blame liberals for this development, with Green referencing Rand’s The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution and Driscoll basically blaming Obama for not spending stimulus money on road projects. Of course, actually reading the article points to another culprit entirely:

But higher taxes for road maintenance are equally unpopular. In June, Stutsman County residents rejected a measure that would have generated more money for roads by increasing property and sales taxes.

I’d rather my kids drive on a gravel road than stick them with a big tax bill,” said Bob Baumann, as he sipped a bottle of Coors Light at the Sportsman’s Bar Café and Gas in Spiritwood.

[…]

Judy Graves of Ypsilanti, N.D., voted against the measure to raise taxes for roads. But she says she and others nonetheless wrote to Gov. John Hoeven and asked him to stop Old 10 from being ground up because it still carries traffic to a Cargill Inc. malting plant.

Roads aren’t being ground up into gravel because of some insidious liberal agenda. They’re being ground up because local residents aren’t willing to pay the taxes needed to maintain paved roads–and then complaining that the roads aren’t being maintained. But there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. If you aren’t willing to raise taxes, then some government services are going to be cut. That means that less-traveled roads aren’t going to be maintained.

FILED UNDER: Government, Politics 101, Taxes, US Politics, , , , ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. wr says:

    I always thought the Republicans wanted to take us back to the middle of the 19th century, but I underestimated them. They won’t settle for less than the Dark Ages.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I wonder if it has to do with Michigan’s laws requiring a certain percentage of road expenditures being dedicated to pedestrian or bike lanes? I’ve seen a lot of bike lanes in rural Michigan that looked like memorials to Ozymandias.

  3. TangoMan says:

    They’re being ground up because local residents aren’t willing to pay the taxes needed to maintain paved roads–and then complaining that the roads aren’t being maintained.

    I suspect that things are a little more complicated than that. The salaries and pension costs of government workers are through the roof and these costs comprise the bulk of road maintenance and planning.

    The case is simpler when the road maintenance, supervision and planning is bid out to private contractors.

    As for paying of road taxes, most states collect revenue from gas taxes, do they not? If those road taxes are being diverted into general revenue and then the government is asking for more revenue via new taxes, it’s not accurate to argue that people aren’t willing to pay taxes to support the roads they drive on. They’ve likely already paid more in taxes for roads than has been spent on road maintenance and they don’t want to be taken to the cleaners once again.

  4. Brummagem Joe says:

    TangoMan says:
    Monday, July 19, 2010 at 20:06
    “I suspect that things are a little more complicated than that. The salaries and pension costs of government workers are through the roof and these costs comprise the bulk of road maintenance and planning.”

    Would you like to produce some numbers to substantiate this bizarre claim. Do you know how much a mile it costs to build and maintain highways. But I’ll stand by for your analysis. If it doesn’t arrive I’ll be forced to believe you were just making this up.

  5. Brummagem Joe says:

    TangoMan says:
    Monday, July 19, 2010 at 20:06
    “The case is simpler when the road maintenance, supervision and planning is bid out to private contractors.”

    Actually a hell of a lot of it is contracted out hence the Associated General Contractors enthusiasm for highway bills but the experience is very mixed. Quite a lot of studies have been done comparing private and public performance and private contractors certainly aren’t noticeably better and have some appalling failures like the big dig in Boston. But I’ll wait for your numbers.

  6. Steve says:

    TangoMan says:
    “As for paying of road taxes, most states collect revenue from gas taxes, do they not? If those road taxes are being diverted into general revenue and then the government is asking for more revenue via new taxes, it’s not accurate to argue that people aren’t willing to pay taxes to support the roads they drive on. They’ve likely already paid more in taxes for roads than has been spent on road maintenance and they don’t want to be taken to the cleaners once again.”

    This is so true. I live in California where we frequently have ballot measures that ask citizens to sign on to bond measures so that we can maintain our police and fire departments, for additional infrastructure support, and for schools. Apparently, there is just never enough tax money to go around for these pesky issues after the welfare and pet projects are paid for, But these things should be the top three things that state and local tax dollars go for. It is odd that the freebie welfare programs, pet projects, and other psuedo-charitable government functions never make it to the ballot.

    I thing TangoMan is right. It is not that people are unwilling to pay taxes for infrastructure. It is that they feel like they are already significantly taxed, and that the money should be spent differently. That is why it is not hypocritical to request that the governor keep maintaining a road even after citizens reject an additional tax. It is probably their hope that some day the politicians will listen and shift tax dollars to different priorities.

  7. Brummagem Joe says:

    “It is probably their hope that some day the politicians will listen and shift tax dollars to different priorities.”

    To govern is to choose. Arguments about priorities is what politics is largely about. Since we keep passing ever bigger highway bills every six years I’m somewhat sceptical that our highways are being short changed on funds.

  8. tom p says:

    ***This is so true. I live in California where we frequently have ballot measures ****

    Steve, the “California system of governance” is bankrupt. You all have had so many ballot measures allocating specific amounts of money go to specific destinations, that your legislature is a waste of time… They CAN’T do anything.

    You have all but “balloted” them out of existence. (unfortunately for you, they still draw a paycheck)

  9. tom p says:

    By “you” I mean California voters.

  10. Tano says:

    ‘It is not that people are unwilling to pay taxes for infrastructure. It is that they feel like they are already significantly taxed, and that the money should be spent differently. ”

    These two sentences are contradictory. If people want their tax money spent differently, then it means, obviously, that they are not willing to spend it on infrastructure.

    Its amazing the way people will twist themselves into pretzels in order to hew to their ideological line even when it is obvious to everyone else what is going on. I continue to be amazed (naive me) at people like Driscoll and Green who dont have the cojones to own their own ideology.

    They want minimal government, and yet they try to blame others when that leads to unpopular outcomes. It would be funny, only if we could just watch these clowns in a circus, rather than face the constant threat that they actually might achieve positions of power.

  11. Gustopher says:

    I’m sure this is all the fault of the unions. If the workers just accepted poverty level wages, residents wouldn’t have to pay such high taxes for road work.

  12. MM says:

    Well, it’s tough to go wrong underestimating the insight of Steven Green.

  13. john says:

    Interesting story for you….friend of mine used to work for roads department of a local suburb. At one point he asked for $3 million to repave a section of road (it did need repaving). Well,his request was denied because the repaving budget for the year was all used up. However, his boss was more than happy to provide $3 million for -patching- the road, and then he could apply for $3 million to repave the next year. So, a $3 million job ended up costing $6 because of bureaucratic stupidity. Well….maybe not stupidity….I’m certain the politicians planned the roads budgets that way.

  14. They’re being ground up because local residents aren’t willing to pay the taxes needed to maintain paved roads–and then complaining that the roads aren’t being maintained.

    Wow, nice false dilemma. Infrastructure maintance is a small part of most state budgets. I suspect what most of the people want is the roads maintained by cutting spending elsewhere. But as is typical in budget crisis, state’s target cuts to be as painful as possible as a means of extorting support for tax increases.

  15. Trumwill says:

    If those road taxes are being diverted into general revenue and then the government is asking for more revenue via new taxes, it’s not accurate to argue that people aren’t willing to pay taxes to support the roads they drive on.

    Broadly speaking, gasoline taxes don’t cover local roads (such as the ones that might be turned into gravel). As far as I know, they never really have. Generally speaking, it’s money from general revenue going into roads rather than “road money” going out to other projects (public transportation being an exception).

  16. john says:

    Tano! ( same one from gp.net?)
    Those two sentences are fine. Tax for roads? Fine. Tax for a teapot museum? Not so much. Broadcast history museum? No. Raises for Quinn’s friends & staff? Friends of Erkl Stroger getting consulting jobs at $24 999? Again, no.
    The minimal government would be funding infrastructure and not the pet projects in politician’s districts. Cut the obvious crap out, and you have plenty of money for roads. Roads funds are like teachers. Politicians use them because they’ve high profile & visible. There is likely plenty of money for roads if only the MI pols would cut spending in a less visible area. Of course that wouldn’t make headlines, and would be counter to their goal of overall larger government.

  17. anjin-san says:

    The salaries and pension costs of government workers are through the roof and these costs comprise the bulk of road maintenance and planning.

    Don’t know what the percentage is, but I do agree with Tango here, government salaries and pensions are beyond the point of insanity.

    Steve’s point is also well taken. I lived in one of the wealthiest towns in America for many years, George Lucas and Jerry Garcia were neighbors. When we needed potholes fixed, we were told a bond issue would have to be passed. Meanwhile the city attorney was getting $400 an hour to sit in the back row at town council meetings and read the paper. Police captains were getting tax free disability for life because of “stress” (in a town with just about zero crime) and then starting security companies 6 weeks later.

  18. Joe says:

    I think the problem is that people are A) rightfully afraid of debt now, and B) more or less disgusted with how any government, federal, state or local, handles the tax money that is already in place.

  19. JKB says:

    As has been said, they could stop diverting road funds to build bike lanes and subsidize foolish high speed rail. The rail, BTW, where passengers are never willing to pay a ticket price high enough to cover operating costs.

    On the other hand, turning roads back to gravel will provide a reason to hang on to the SUV or F-250 and avoid the Prius and other delicate cars.

  20. Trumwill says:

    JKB, do you have any statistics on what percentage of fuel tax revenue is diverted away from roads and bridges? Do you reckon it is more than or less than the 30-40% of our roads that are paid for out of general revenue, bonds, property taxes, and so on? Further complicating matters is that local roads in particular typically get very little from usage fees (fuel tax, tolls, etc).

    You correctly point out that riders of high speed rail (which I would vote against at every opportunity) do not pay their way. But as near as I can tell, neither do drivers.

  21. Brummagem Joe says:

    JKB says:
    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 01:40
    “As has been said, they could stop diverting road funds to build bike lanes and subsidize foolish high speed rail. The rail, BTW, where passengers are never willing to pay a ticket price high enough to cover operating costs.”

    Correct. Which is why just about all mass transit systems are subsidized. However, that doesn’t mean rail passenger systems, high speed or otherwise, are foolish. They would make eminent sense in many parts of the country with high potential traffic which is why they ubiquitous in Europe.

  22. john personna says:

    I’d challenge the “bike lane guys” from above to find some numbers. In particular, the percentage of state budgets that go to them.

    I found this tidbit:

    Boulder politicians understand that creating a biking community requires infrastructure (according to the City of Boulder, almost 10 percent of its residents commute to work by bike), so 15 percent of the city’s transportation budget in recent years has been dedicated to traffic improvements and maintenance with this aim.

    Given that they are probably playing “catch-up” for those 10 percent bike riders, the 15% expenditure is probably justified.

    http://livininthebikelane.blogspot.com/

    I really doubt you’ll find a city or state that is really spending, as a percentage of budget, out of proportion with ridership.

  23. john personna says:

    BTW, we don’t really know which paved roads really should be gravel. It’s possible that some were over-built, with a construction and maintenance cost that is not justified by usage.

    In California I’m pretty sure the government-construction complex is building beyond reason.

  24. john personna says:

    Ah, here’s a related one for you bike haters:

    The latest Wired UK has an interesting piece by behavioural economist Dan Ariely who notes that we are now more likely than ever to be the agents of our own demise – through the poor choices we make.

    “One of the most interesting analyses on the ways in which our decisions kill us is by Ralph Keeney (Operation Research, 2008). He puts forth the claim that 44.5 per cent of all premature deaths in the US result from personal decisions — choices such as smoking, not exercising, criminality, drug and alcohol use and unsafe sexual behaviour…

    http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2010/07/more_a_danger_to_our.html

  25. john personna says:

    Oh! One final thought … be aware that repaving cost is related to oil costs (asphalt is an oil product/by-product), and the run-up in past years of oil costs has blown many budgets.

    They had the money to pave roads with oil at $40/bbl, at $70/bbl, not so much.

  26. Franklin says:

    Note that gravel roads lead to more maintenance costs for vehicles, so they’ll have to pay one way or another.

  27. Drew says:

    C’mon Alex. I think Tango and JP made the relevant points. I’m sure some roads are over-engineered, and secondly, as the left almost always points out, a legitimate function of government is infrastructure, which, yes, we should pay for. But what they always leave out is that they’ve crapped away the money on other endeavors, and then plead poor mouth and legitimate function in calling for the taxes for infrastructure.

    The truth is is its bald faced mismanagement. If these incompetants worked for me they’d be summarily fired for the bozo’s they are.

  28. wr says:

    Drew — Ah, the old “waste, fraud and abuse” argument. Funny how whenever Republicans take office, they can never manage to find it to cut. Because, of course, most government services are desired by the citizenry.

    “Conservatives” want to starve the government so it can’t perform it’s basic functions, but when everything starts to fall apart they fall back on the excuse that they didn’t mean for THAT to be cut.

    At least Republicans in congress are being honest now. They don’t want to extend unemployment payments and they’re willing to say it’s because they think people without jobs are lazy leeches who should die in the street. It’s a vile philosophy, especially since most of those promoting it are multi-millionaires. (And the truly deluded, like ZR, who believes that unemployment insurance is a great evil, except that which goes to him.)

  29. Steve Plunk says:

    Drew is calling it correctly. I don’t say waste, fraud, and abuse but rather engineers, bureaucrats, and politicians. That’s why we get less for our investment. Engineers who over engineer, over complicate, and overbuild. Bureaucrats who are more interested in building fiefdoms rather than deliver projects. Politicians who cater to special interests and their pet project along with the crony capitalism involving road construction companies. The fact is there is hardly anyone left to represent the interests of the taxpayers whose money is being wasted.

    This situation is now being complicated by government employee unions and government employee pensions. Taxpayers didn’t cause the mess by not paying enough since the spending has increased consistently. The managers, bureaucrats and politicians, failed to properly control costs and plan for the future.

    The past failures of fiduciary responsibility has created a situation where we can all look for reduced service levels in the future.

  30. wr says:

    Steve Plunk — Yes, if everyone worked for free, if engineers found magic ways to make roads without engineering, if we didn’t have to follow safety rules, if OSHA would just go away, if we stopped pestering people about pollution, then the magic road fairy would come down and build highways for free. And until that time it’s slavery to ask people to pay the actual costs of what they want.

  31. matt says:

    With overpasses down here being over 100 feet in the air I’d personally rather they over engineer/build then under engineer/build…

  32. john personna says:

    When the acceptable number of people to die in an earthquake is 0, fly-overs will be expensive.

  33. Steve Plunk says:

    wr,

    There are reasonable compromises that can be made and much of the over engineering is about style and aesthetics more than function and cost. It looks better for the engineer on his resume. No one saying do away with engineers but we can ask them to be more efficient. Reducing my arguments to the absurd level means you got nothing of substance to refute them.