Why One Vermont Town Is Un-Paving Roads Instead of Repairing Potholes

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Not only do paved roads require expensive upkeep, they symbolize speed and the stresses of modern life in a progressive yet slow-paced New England state. . (Photo: Doug Kerr/flickr)

Vermont, the New England state that was once an independent country, tends to do things a bit differently. Roadside billboards are verboten (not a bad thing!), the natives revere lake monsters and soft-serve ice cream cones are unheard of — they’re creemees.

Now, in the McDonald’s-free state capital of Montpelier, Vermont’s proud and longstanding tradition of independence and individuality has extended to road infrastructure. You see, the city — a capital city so quaint it makes Pierre, South Dakota, look like a booming metropolis — isn’t fixing its pothole-plagued paved roads. It’s un-paving them altogether with the assistance of road reclaimers, specialized construction vehicles that grind the existing asphalt and smooth out the road's surface. Next, the resulting dirt and gravel is reinforced with geotextile, a type of durable and permeable fabric used to bolster soil stability, prevent erosion and help with drainage.

Yes, Montpelier is reverting back to dirt roads.

While Wired reports that Montpelier is at the “forefront of a growing trend in public works,” this so-called “strategic retreat” isn’t necessarily born out of Vermont’s tendency to march to the beat of its own drummer (although that has something to do with it).

Simply, un-paving is less expensive than repaving as petroleum-base asphalt isn’t cheap. Faced with dwindling annual road repair budgets, rural towns like Montpelier are finding that regressing saves a significant amount of cash — cash that might be better used for larger and more urgent infrastructure needs. Case in point: by un-paving in lieu of repaving Bliss Road, a notoriously pothole-y lane just outside of town, Montpelier saved $120,000. With a population hovering just above 7,000, the city’s annual road repair budget is a mere $1.3 million.

If Montpelier’s happens to become flush with dedicated funds for road repair projects in the near future, workers can always go back and repave. But who knows — maybe that will never happen given that many Vermonters are actually rather smitten with dirt roads.

“We love our dirt roads, in kind of a weird way. Everyone’s got a mud road story,” Amy Mattinat, owner of the Auto Craftsman car repair shop in Montpelier, tells Wired. She notes that well-maintained (emphasis on well-maintained) dirt and gravel roads are “probably better” for cars than a poorly maintained paved road filled with potholes.

While a neglected country road that’s sans asphalt can certainly wreak havoc on the overall health of a car, unpaved roads that are tended to on a regular basis can indeed be safer. Polluted sediment runoff and dust — and the unsightly, dirt-crusted cars that emerge from dust — are no doubt major issues. But as Wired points out, treating unpaved roads with a dust-taming mixture of calcium chloride, vegetable oils, animal fats and organic petroleum helps significantly.

Given that many, but certainly not all, Vermonters are copacetic with freeing certain roads of their asphalt shackles, it’s also no surprise that they can react strongly when lonely dirt roads are singled out for an upgrade.

Dirt road, Vermont
Gravel and dirt country roads are as quintessentially Vermont as covered bridges and dairy cows. (Photo: Ben Pollard/flickr)

Back in 2008, the New York Times reported that a “citizens’ uprising” was borne in the town of Brookfield, just south of Montpelier, when officials announced plans to pave a half-mile stretch of dirt road. Mortified by the prospect of the road in question being desecrated with asphalt, town residents banded together and fought back. The road was never paved. At the time, Vermont boasted 6,000 miles of paved road — and 8,000 miles of unpaved roads.

So why would the residents of a small Vermont town rally against what many would consider progress? Why wouldn’t they be thrilled that a dusty old gravel and dirt road was being treated to an asphalt makeover?

Turns out, the tendency for asphalt-hate has a lot to do with how Vermonters champion slowness in an increasingly harried world. Plus, there's something undeniably charming about an unpaved country road. And Vermont has charm in spades.

Writes the Times:

To a lot of Vermonters, an unpaved road is a better road. People go more slowly on a dirt road. In rural Vermont, slower is better.
There is no rush hour on a dirt road. There is not much traffic, period. ‘Paved roads are for cars, not people,’ said Naomi Flanders, a performance artist who lives on a dirt road in Calais, where the residents rallied last year against a suggestion that eight-tenths of County Road be paved. ‘Dirt roads are for people.’

While Vermonters may collectively hold dirt and gravel roads in higher esteem than the residents of other states, the birthplace of Ben & Jerry's and mail-order teddy bears certainly isn’t alone when it comes to remedying pothole-ridden roads by unpaving them. Referencing a recent report published by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), Wired notes that 27 different states have de-paved asphalt roads with much of that activity occurring over the past five years.