The unpaving of America: It's back to the stone age

gravel road
CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia/ Coober Pedy

On July 11, 1916, President Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act, the first legislation that allowed for federal aid for road improvements. The very idea of this had been fought for years; according to Richard Weingroff of Public Roads,

Many members of Congress were not convinced the federal government had the constitutional authority to enact such a program. Others questioned the wisdom of embarking on a program that would be a constant drain on the treasury.

In fact it went all the way to the Supreme court; "In a 1907 case, Wilson v. Shaw, Justice David Brewer wrote that Congress had the power "to construct interstate highways" under the constitutional right to regulate interstate commerce." But if finally got through:

There were two competing interest groups at stake: Farmers wanted sturdy, all-weather post roads to transport their goods, and urban motorists wanted paved long-distance highways. The bill that both houses of Congress eventually approved on June 27, 1916, and that Wilson signed into law that July 11, leaned in the favor of the rural populations by appropriating $75 million for the improvement of post roads. It included the stipulation that all states have a highway agency staffed by professional engineers who would administer the federal funds and ensure that all roads were constructed properly.

And so began a hundred years of investment in highway infrastructure, much of which is now being undone.

According to Wired, cash-strapped towns are un-paving roads they can’t afford to fix. Montpelier, Vermont is doing it; Aarian Marshall writes:

Repaving roads is expensive, so Montpelier instead used its diminishing public works budget to take a step back in time and un-pave the road. Workers hauled out a machine called a “reclaimer” and pulverized the damaged asphalt and smoothed out the road’s exterior.

There is nothing new in this; John Laumer reported on it back in 2010 in Trend Watch: Unpaving Rural America "Back To The Stone Age”. He noted that there were some environmental benefits and concerns that should be considered:

  • Asphalt is a refining byproduct. Less will be needed (either way).
  • Vehicle speed is slowed as a practical matter, which means higher mileage.
  • Rolling friction is increased, which means more fuel consumed
  • More car washing is required, absolutely.
  • More erosive sediment movement from the cartway and into streams and lakes.
  • More cracked windows and chipped paint and broken headlights, which mean more materials consumed.

But there is another problem noted in Wired, according to Amy Mattinat, who does car maintenance in Montpelier:

Gravel and dirt are rough on tires, axles, suspensions, and wheel bearings, not to mention the extra work of keeping cars clean. There are unintended consequences, too. “A lot of people in Vermont drive Priuses,” Mattinat says. “But when, after about a year or two, their Priuses just gets totally beat up, there’s a lot of people who turn in their Priuses and go back to an SUV.”

So in the end everyone pays anyway; much higher gas consumption, and probably more car maintenance, more SUVs and fewer Prii or other smaller, lighter, energy efficient cars. Wouldn’t it make more sense just to have a road tax that covered the cost of actually maintaining the roads?

The unpaving of America: It's back to the stone age
It is apparently too expensive to maintain asphalt, so it's back to dirt roads.

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