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LANSING, IOWA - In the rolling countryside along the Minnesota border, the lonesome, dusty roads seemingly outnumber the people. So when Tony and Gertie Monat were looking for a place to live 14 years ago, they were happy to find a house with the bonus of a paved surface in front of it.
Now that pavement has been pulverized. The county government couldn't afford to resurface it, and the road in front of the Monats' white rambler is back to soft gravel. Amid the regular swirl of dust and flying stones, they can't help but feel they've lost a piece of modern life.
"We definitely miss the hard surface," Gertie Monat said. "I'm like, how can you take that away now?"
The paved roads that finally brought rural America into the 20th century are starting to disappear across the Midwest in the 21st. Local officials, facing rising pavement prices, shrinking budgets and fewer residents, are making tough decisions to regress. In some places, they have even eliminated small stretches of gravel road altogether.
In states like South Dakota and Michigan, the reversions are bringing substantial changes to the landscape. Minnesota has managed to mostly escape so far, but at a conference in Shoreview last month some engineers acknowledged changes might be looming.
"In a way, this is a step backwards," Otter Tail County Engineer Rick West told the group, as he kicked off the discussion about reverting to gravel. "But I think it's reality."
Michigan has changed more than 100 miles of pavement to gravel. After one road was torn up a year and a half ago, the County Road Association of Michigan bottled the millings and asphalt and sent them to state legislators as a message.
In North Dakota, a couple of stretches nearly 10 miles long have gone to gravel along with a sprinkling of smaller patches. County leaders are discussing more such changes, a transportation official there said.
South Dakota may hold the distinction of being the most torn-up state in the Midwest. A state transportation official estimated that 120 miles of pavement have been ground up or left to crumble back to gravel.
Many rural roads are deteriorating faster than they used to because farm and industrial equipment are heavier than ever. Meanwhile, the cost of pavement has risen dramatically in recent years. Some engineers estimate it costs up to $300,000 to replace a mile of paved road surface now. Gravel isn't free, but it's far less expensive.
With maintenance costs included, engineers have often used a rule of thumb that a road needs 150 to 200 cars a day, or the equivalent in heavy-weight traffic, to be worth paving.
Country residents driving cars and pickup trucks hate the gravel for its slushy texture in spring, the dust in summer and the washboard-like ridges that sometimes emerge.
"It's no fun going backwards," said Ken Skorseth, a program manager for the South Dakota Local Transportation Assistance Program. "We've been through that already in South Dakota, so that shock is in the past for me. But my friends in Minnesota are facing it head-on right now."
In Minnesota's Freeborn County, Sue Miller, the county engineer, has been warning county commissioners about the possibility in future years.
The rising cost of maintaining 634 miles of road in her county presents "a pretty grim picture," Miller said.
She helped launch a study with the state Local Road Research Board to come up with alternatives. The board is looking at what other states have tried, including putting additives into gravel to make it harder and more durable and building stronger road bases that can use just a thin layer of pavement.
Miller has already presided over reversion on a small scale. Workers in her county tore up a 1,500-foot stretch of pavement that kept sinking on marshy land. It was simply too expensive to keep fixing.
While that decision made easy engineering sense, returning other roads to gravel wouldn't sit well with residents, said County Commissioner Glen Mathiason.
A farmer who lives on a road paved nearly 40 years ago, Mathiason said commissioners would have to go through "a pretty lengthy explanation."
Skorseth has seen it play out many times in South Dakota: "To be bluntly honest ... it can be political suicide for an elected official unless they can clearly communicate convincingly the predicament that they're in."
Minnesota has been able to escape large-scale reversion so far partly because the Legislature raised the state's gas tax by 8.5 cents in February 2008, with the increase phased in through next year. Counties get part of that tax, plus property taxes and other small sources of income for their roads.
Still, state and county transportation officials have warned it won't be enough to keep up with maintenance demands.
Back to the future
In Iowa, Allamakee County Engineer Brian Ridenour said things are more desperate because the state hasn't passed a gas tax increase. He maneuvered his county pickup truck through the slushy roads on a thawing day recently, pointing out "there used to be a gravel road here" or "this used to be sealcoated."
With 900 miles of county roads for 14,000 residents, the budget is tight. A few years ago, faced with three aging bridges on the Upper Iowa River, the county decided to build just one new span to replace them. Some gravel roads leading to those bridges became farmland again.
"I get a lot of calls. They'll say, 'Is this really your mission to close our roads or go to gravel?'" Ridenour said of local residents. "I'm like, 'No, it is not.' ... You're forced to do these things; this is not something I'm promoting."
Once people learn the numbers, he said, they're more understanding.
To tear up a thinly paved road and add some new gravel, Ridenour said, costs his county about $5,000 a mile. Resurfacing can run about $100,000.
Tony Monat said he understands why the quarter-mile of pavement leading up to his property was ripped up. At least the gravel is smoother than the patchwork of potholes he used to dodge.
"I'd rather have concrete, but it's just so expensive," he said. "And really, why should everybody in the rest of the county help pay for my hard surface road?"
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102