Rural roads may be messy
By JOLENE STEVENS
and KAREN SCHWALLER
As the ninth-coldest winter in Iowa history recedes in the rearview mirror and fairer temperatures grace spring, it’s a mess in the making, say county engineers, for the the rural road system.
As the deep frost thaws and grain-hauling semis begin rolling to town or ethanol plants, the integrity of gravel and asphalt rural roads will be challenged.
County engineers ask that farmers limit grain hauling to early-morning hours, and call for more funding to upgrade county roads to adequately handle heavier farm loads.
Road embargoes are not out of the question, they said.
1,339 gravel miles
Woodbury County has total of 1,339 miles of roads, plus an additional 68 miles of dirt roads, said Mark Nahra, county engineer.
Nahra said his concern stems from the deep frost this winter , which prolongs the spring thaw and adds to road instability.
“Combine a prolonged thaw with a rainy, wet spring,” Nahra said, “and it can well lead to road problems.
“We have very little ability to cure or address problems created during spring thaw on the fly. This is a problem that requires that nature takes its course.
“Roads have to be strong enough to resist the thaw damage before it occurs, not after or during the thaw.”
He said embargoing some gravel and asphalt roads may be necessary “to protect them from severe damage.
“Often we can do more harm than good by trying to haul gravel or stone to isolated failed spots as we can damage other roads in our efforts to make repairs.”
Nahra said addressing the roads during a spring thaw can be costly for counties.
“In our case,” he said, “we’ve had to regrade and regravel road segments where damage to the road from multiple load passages has left the roadway virtually indistinguishable from the ditch.
“The repair costs for these roads greatly exceed the cost of our normal spring maintenance.”
There are, however, steps producers can take to minimize road damage and repair costs, Nahra said.
“Hauling loads early in the morning during the early weeks of a spring thaw helps,” he said, taking advantage of early-morning temperatures that stiffen the road surface.
“Another way to alleviate problems is lowering tire pressures on semi-truck and trailer tires when hauling on gravel roads,” Nahra said.
He said research by the U.S. Forestry Service has shown that lowered tire pressure makes a “significant difference” in the number of loaded passes on granular roadways before surface failure occurs.
Adoption of a similar plan in Iowa, Nahra said, would aid in keeping the state’s granular roads in better condition in spring.
“I know producers are between a rock and a hard place,” Nahra said, “when profitability and delivery contracts are in place that require deliveries during months when roads are vulnerable.
“If producers could haul crops to market outside of the spring thaw periods, it would help prevent some road deterioration caused by repeated loads.
“The productivity increases and overseas market demands have changed the farm dynamic in the past 30 to 40 years, and we are trying to meet the need of the producer with a granular road system that has been under-funded as its useful life has been consumed.
“Counties need additional revenue to reverse the gradual deterioration of the road system and begin to develop roads to carry us the next 50 years.”
He said counties must keep upgrading rural roads to carry modern ag loads, since on-farm grain bins are built where convenient for the producer with little concern given to road access.
He said if a designated set of rural roads could be updated to carry heavy loads and producers would reroute to them, it would lengthen the life of other non-upgraded gravel roads.
Dickinson County Engineer Dan Eckert said this is the time of year that concerns him the most, as soft gravel roads tend to become rutted from large equipment, and paved roads are used heavily as farmers haul their grain to elevators and ethanol plants.
The single key, he said- agreeing with Nahra – is to haul grain early in the day if possible.
“This time of year the sun is getting so much stronger,” Eckert said, “with 40- and 45-degree highs, and lows of 24 or 25 degrees at night.
“If guys can do their hauling early in the morning before the road starts getting soft,” he said, “it’s a big help to us.
“Once a guy goes out in the afternoon in the heat of the day, the top foot starts getting rutted up, and then it freezes, and then it becomes something a tire can get caught in, and then it becomes (not only a repair situation), but it’s also dangerous.”Eckert said roads are under more stress due to larger farm machines used in agriculture.
He said big grain loads are actually causing more issues on the county’s paved roads, as he sees it.
“We can run a motor grader on our gravel roads, and once things start drying up we can add more gravel to it and shape it up – it’s not a real big cost to put things back together.
“But the big loads really cause problems (statewide), because of the large volume of truck traffic headed to ethanol plants – whether hauling grain in, bringing ethanol out or trucking distiller’s dried grains, or syrups.
“But it’s amazing when you watch the truck traffic. I don’t think anybody suspected the amount of traffic to be generated when we first started getting this ethanol boom a few years ago.”
Eckert said the process of expansion and contraction is hard on county roads of all kinds.
“There’s nothing tougher on a road than this time of year with 45-degree highs and 20-degree lows,” he said. “It melts and the water starts getting into cracks, then into the road grade and then it expands, and we go through the very same cycle again the next day.”
He said traffic from semis and grain carts, especially on warm days on gravel roads, complicates that situation as the roads freeze and thaw.
He, too, has considered road embargoes, which he said the state of Minnesota does in order to protect the conditions of their roads.
Eckert said frost boils (or extreme soft conditions) on gravel roads, and pavement damage pose not only an inconvenience and danger to motorists, but adds expense to a county budget that is already strained.
Road embargoes, he said, could save the county some money in repair costs.
“With the massive size of loads out there,” Eckert said, “I’m becoming more and more (in favor) of them, especially the way the pavements get damaged this time of year.
“Our gravel roads can be back in good shape by June with a little gravel and some grading, but we’re talking $300,000 to $400,000 to replace one mile of paving. It’s very costly.”
Eckert said 25 years ago one mile of pavement could be replaced for between $60,000 and $70,000.
“There’s been no gas tax increase since 1989,” he said, “so we’re still working with the same revenues, but the costs are about 500 percent more now.”
There are 685 miles of road to manage in Dickinson County, he said.
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