EDITORIAL: Ordering rocky roads

Lack of funding has Texas DOT turning to gravel surfaces

Blog Entry September 10, 2013

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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We would harvest rocks about every July—and go all the way to Romulus, Mich., to do it, too. The ground there was rich with the product.


Road trips to my grandfather’s house were always long and cramped between two older sisters. It quickly got to a point where I just wanted to feel the road turn from pavement to the rumble of rubble. As soon as my father would make a left turn onto a gravel road, I would perk my head up from the depths of sibling solitary confinement and know my release was just a couple of minutes away. It’s also when our blue, four-door Chevrolet Impala became a hard mineral combine, picking pebbles along the rural row. The plucking pinged the belly of our sedan relentlessly, and if there had been some kind of hopper system worked into the bottom frame of the car, I am sure we would have gathered enough aggregate to eventually start a business.


You could say my grandfather lived in a farm community—as long as you could plug the noise of jumbo jets taking off and landing at Detroit Metro Airport. However, even back in the 1970s these so-called farm-to-market routes were beginning to demand a different name. I do not ever recall seeing Farmer Brown pulling his load of tomatoes with his middle-aged tractor en route to the A&P.


Surprisingly, even with the slow death of farm stands continuing throughout the U.S., we still use the cute, turnip-truck reference for the endless stretches of two-lane roads. I mean, come on, we are well into the 21st century here. Could we at least update the tag to turbine two-laners due to the increase in wind farms? Heck, we do not even have to go that green. How about fossil-fuel burn routes? Both the turbine industry and a rejuvenated oil business, thanks to fracking, demand heavy vehicles for transport, and both are throwing their weight around rural roads—many of them gravel.


The state of Texas is considering increasing the number of quarry-invested surfaces significantly after the Texas Department of Transportation announced it was looking to convert 80 miles of paved road to gravel. State lawmakers, who had two special sessions to try to get a transportation funding package right, came out looking like most had rocks in their head. Only $225 million was generated for roads affected by energy development, and since none of them are eligible for federal dollars, some were considering pounding them into dust.


It takes about 1,200 loaded trucks to bring a new oil well into operation, and another 350 per year to keep one working. The Texas DOT said it amounts to 8 million cars (2 million annually), and all that will be protecting motorists and heavy haulers is sand, soil and aggregate.


Now, do not get me wrong, gravel roads have their place across this land, but I think even those trying to sell the product would admit to the beating they would take under heavy truck traffic. Gravel roads also have to be maintained every year. Even in a state as dry as Texas, washboarding and other forms of deterioration occur with the change of the seasons, and a motor grader or box scraper also are needed to push the rock back into place. We are talking a pretty stiff increase in personnel and material cost. I just have a hard time believing that the decision would be the right one to take.


I’m willing to bet in a year or two the right transportation formula will be produced in Texas, and all the resources used to switch and maintain these roads will go to waste. If you ask me, I would slap a tax on the oil drillers. If they want to abuse the roads to transport their “crop,” then they are going to have to help plant a framework that would allow the proper upkeep. Unfortunately, politicians rarely want to go that route. Maybe one or two farm-to-market trips in a vintage 1976 Chevy Impala will convince them. R&B

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