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The Newest Paving Trend: Unpaving?

Friday, July 29, 2016

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Paving can be a big expense for governments, and some are strapped for infrastructure funding these days. Enter a novel approach: unpaving.

According to a recent Wired article, some local governments are opting to remove pavement and put down gravel or other materials instead of repaving roads that are in bad shape. It’s a trend that’s taken off in the past five years, according to Wired.

Gravel road
© / MarkHatfield

Unpaving is most popular on rural roads that were paved when asphalt prices were low, but are too low-volume to be worth the cost of maintaining as such.

The National Cooperative Highway Research Bureau, part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine's Transportation Research Board, this year released a publication called Converting Paved Roads to Unpaved, a guide to what it calls a "relatively widespread" practice.

Unpaving, the NCHRB notes, is most popular on rural roads that were paved when asphalt prices were low, but are too low-volume to be worth the cost of maintaining as such.

Addressing Issues

Montpelier, the capital of Vermont, is the article’s chief example; it began ripping out asphalt pavement and replacing it with a “geotextile” to address erosion and drainage.

That geotextile layer may be key: Some environmentalists criticize unpaved roads for their tendency to erode, sending contaminated sediment into streams.

Critics also note that the materials used to keep dust from kicking up too much can be bad for nearby life—though, as Wired notes, substances including vegetable oil can be used in place of petroleum products for that job. The Unpaved Roads Institute, headquartered at Montana State University, studies the control of dust on unpaved roads and is performing research with the goal of minimizing the harm done by dirt and gravel roads.

Tough on Cars

Beyond the environment, dirt and gravel roads can be rough on vehicles. The Wired article features a Montpelier auto shop owner who says cars, especially smaller and lighter ones, can suffer damage from kicking up gravel, and that leads to higher maintenance costs.

While some may appreciate the Dukes of Hazzard aesthetic, the most appealing part of unpaved roads for those in government: the cost. According to Wired, in 2009, Montpelier saved $120,000 by unpaving instead of repaving with asphalt. That’s enough to make any local government at least think about going back to gravel.


Tagged categories: Asphalt; Government; Infrastructure; North America; Program/Project Management; Roads/Highways; Transportation Research Board (TRB)

Comment from Car F., (7/29/2016, 11:35 AM)

Why stop there: let’s go all the way to the horse and buggy, latrines instead of toilets, 100% volunteer fire brigades, schools administered by church and no more public schools,…let’s make America great again.

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