Road Management & Engineering Journal
Road Management & Engineering Journal
November, 2000
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Ideas for Stretching a Gravel Road Maintenance Budget

(This article is reproduced, with permission, from the Spring 1999 issue of the KUTC Newsletter, a publication of the Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) of the University of Kansas Transportation Center in cooperation with the Kansas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.)

Rural counties that face little growth in funds for their road departments need to be innovative as they juggle maintenance costs for gravel roads. This article describes what three counties in Iowa are doing to address this situation.

Vacating/reclassifying roads eases financial pressure.

Hamilton County wants to put more money and effort into its better roads by closing or downgrading about 70 percent of gravel roads. "We're trying to cut down the miles we maintain so we can maintain the miles we've got better," says Rod Rockman, Hamilton County supervisor.

The roads under consideration are not heavily traveled; most segments are traveled by five to 50 vehicles per day. A glance at the plat map shows that the roads are scattered around the county, and a few segments are county line roads.

Hamilton County Engineer Nicholas Konrady would like to convert about 42 miles of gravel roads to class B roads. Konrady proposes creating two different levels of class B roads. Type B1 would be maintained as granular surface roads with "spot type applications at our convenience," Konrady says, and no snow plowing. Type B2 roads would be allowed to revert to dirt. The county currently has 2.2 miles of class B Roads.

Miles Butler, chair of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors, is more concerned with the reclassifications than the vacations. Converting roads to class B would mean that those roads are essentially closed five months of the year.

Konrady sees potential savings in liability claims with class B roads. As long as a road designated class B meets the minimum standards of that class, there is no liability. Motorists use the road at their own risk.

Criteria for selecting the proposed vacations and downgrades were that 1) no one lives on these roads. There are a couple of grain bins but no hog confinements; 2) The condition and plowing needs of the roads are such that they're expensive to maintain; 3) The roads are out of the way of travel demands.

For the sections of county line gravel roads, the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors is working with the adjacent counties' boards to work things out. Once the Hamilton County board has adopted and published the ordinance that sets up a level B system and the procedures for adding roads to it, the hearing process can begin. One public hearing will be held for all the class B reclassifications.

Registered letters will be sent to surrounding landowners notifying them of the proposed road vacations, and then public hearings will be held for each proposed vacation. Hearings will be conducted this summer and early fall.

Konrady says that one trade-off the county is making by eliminating mileage from the road system is that the county is also limiting its needs, albeit slightly, for the next Iowa DOT needs study.

Research alleviates political pressure.

As one of a handful of Iowa counties expecting to grow significantly in the next 20 years, Johnson County is struggling with issues of land use, development, and the impact on the county's roads. During the last 30 years, says Jeff Davidson, director of the Johnson County Council of Governments (JCCOG), the "formerly rural agricultural areas in Johnson County have experienced a population boom of unexpected magnitude."

Most of the growth is in the North Corridor, an unincorporated area of about 50 square miles north of Iowa City/Coralville and east of I-380. The North Corridor is characterized by the Iowa River valley topography, which is both beautiful and marginal for agriculture, and it is "virtually all zoned residential," Davidson says.

The residential zoning causes property owners and land speculators to have certain expectations, Davidson says, such as having safe public roads. While developers pay for all the streets (and other infrastructure) within their developments, they rarely kick in any extra for improving the public roads. The obvious problem, Davidson says, is that tax revenue from "development doesn't pay for needed road improvements."

The American Farmland Trust summarized the results of 58 cost-of-community-services studies done during the 1990s. The studies, which are snapshots in time, compared the cost of public services for commercial, agricultural, and residential uses in states all across the country, including Minnesota and Wisconsin. In unincorporated areas, for every dollar of tax revenue generated by commercial or agricultural land uses, 25-75 cents worth of services were needed. For every tax dollar generated by residential uses, services cost $1.10 to $1.35.

Davidson says the land use question in Johnson County comes down to two options for the board of supervisors: 1) commit to providing the needed road improvements in areas zoned residential or 2) downzone certain areas where road improvements would be too costly. Either option puts board members in a difficult political situation.

Last year the board asked the JCCOG to study several roads experiencing development pressure, with the possible result of developing a county road management system that would help the board make decisions about rural subdivisions based more on fact that emotion.

The case study included data about existing and projected traffic volumes, the 85th percentile speed, the percentage of trucks, the road's surface type (three were gravel and one was chip seal), the horizontal and vertical geometries, the accident history, the road surface condition (including recommendations about reconstruction), and preliminary cost estimates. Paving these roads would cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, depending on the design. Davidson says the density of residential development in the rural county is creating the need for streets formerly thought of as more appropriate for a city.

The board of supervisors appreciated having the information, Davidson says, but chose not to adopt a road management system. Even if the county adopted such a system, there are such big differences among roads, he says, that they'd still need to "look at each road on an individual basis." Davidson says his office is evaluating five additional county roads this year.

Zoning preserves land uses.

Scott County is successfully managing growth, the resulting land use, and the impact on the county's development plan, land use regulations, and the continued, across-the- board support of county residents.

Larry Mattusch, Scott County engineer, says the zoning laws don't allow subdivisions on gravel roads, and that "works well for us." Mattusch says there are plenty of places to build along a paved road in the unincorporated parts of the county.

In 1949 Scott County became the first county in Iowa to adopt a zoning ordinance which allowed single-family homes with a minimum lot size of 30,000 square feet (.69 acres). During the 1970s when environmentalism was on the rise, a chapter of the League of Women Voters gave a slide presentation to the Scott County Board of Supervisors about the problems of rural subdivisions. This combination of factors helped move the county to greater land use regulations, revised zoning ordinances, and a development plan, says Tim Huey, Scott County planning director.

The county adopted its first subdivision ordinance in 1979 "to encourage orderly development and provide for the installation and enforcement of standards for public and private improvements to serve those developments."

During the 1980s Scott County adopted land use policies and revised zoning ordinances with the overall goals of protecting prime farmland and guiding growth and development to areas of the county deemed most appropriate. Rural housing developments were encouraged in four main areas of the county, primarily the land along the Mississippi River. Since 1993, 75 percent of building permits have been issued for new homes within those four townships, and 25 percent in the other nine townships. According to Huey, this is evidence of Scott County's success in directing growth.

The county's policies have had the support of farmers and urban dwellers since 1980, and support continues as policies are updated approximately every three years. Huey says he still finds "tremendous support" for the land use restrictions, especially among farmers.

According to an Iowa State University land use inventory, from 1983 to 1998 unincorporated Scott County averaged less farmland loss per year, 3,267 acres, than half the counties in Iowa. "People want to preserve our precious, rich, productive, Scott County ag land," Huey says.

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This article is reprinted with permission, with minor adaptations, from Technology News, June- July 1999, Center for Transportation Research and Education, Iowa State University.

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