By J. Q. Collectif/Opinion
The Parish Government opened the dialog for possibly converting some paved roads back to gravel roads at its June Council meeting. I know that there’s a lot of pushback from Parish residents as the obvious first impression is that doing so would be a step in the wrong direction. Another matter of more concern is whether or not a road, once returned to an unpaved surface, will be maintained properly. Is there any real difference in driving on a deteriorated paved road that is full of potholes and a gravel road full of ruts and wash boarding?
I decided to do some research to determine whether or not converting paved roads to gravel would actually be feasible for Natchitoches Parish. There’s no question that we don’t have the funds needed to reconstruct our failing paved roads. The unknown for me, however, is does the Parish have the funds needed to maintain the additional miles of roads should they be returned to gravel?
I came across an online article the other day that indicated many governmental entities across the nation are facing the same dilemma. The article contained a link to a study conducted by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program titled “Converting Paved Roads to Unpaved”
The study discusses what factors were considered when converting a road, what technique was used, what the result was, and whether or not the entities polled intended to convert more roads. A common theme of the study was that governmental entities have to deal with road systems that weren’t constructed properly when originally built and shrinking budgets for maintaining those systems. The overall consensus was that gravel roads are cheaper to maintain than paved roads when properly constructed and the majority of entities polled indicated that they would consider converting additional roads.
The study found that many of the roads identified in the survey were low-volume roads that probably shouldn’t have been paved to begin with. According to information provided by the Natchitoches Parish Department of Public Works, there are over 298 miles of paved roads in its maintenance system. Spread out over more than 300 roads, 40% of them are less than a quarter mile in length. Another 34% of them are at least a quarter mile in length but less than a full mile. If the Parish were to convert these roads to gravel, it would need to allocate funds for their grading and ditch maintenance.
The study referenced several resources that provide information on the costs of maintaining both paved and unpaved road surfaces. I looked at numerous charts and countless figures and felt overwhelmed by the challenge our Parish is facing. The Indiana Local Technical Assistance Program released as study in 2013 which found that the average cost per mile per year for typical maintenance of a graded road is $3,640. For a road requiring a high level of maintenance with water, the cost skyrocketed to $13,520. If those figures were applied to the gravel roads in Natchitoches Parish, the Public Works Department would need a minimum of $3,460,000 to properly maintain them. And, this number doesn’t cover even the first mile of paved roads.
The voters of Natchitoches Parish have all of the say on what our road system looks like. It’s time to stop pointing fingers at each other and instead point them to the facts and figures that are blatantly telling us that we are heading for a complete collapse of our road system. It may be right around the corner or it might be ten or fifteen years from now, but it will come if we don’t do a better job of funding the maintenance of our roads.
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