A weekly blog for all things conservation
By: Tim Robson, Dirt and Gravel Road Specialist
This week’s column will be the first of four articles presented throughout the year focusing on municipal road maintenance. I’ll try to explain what you might see going on in your township or borough each season and why. I know many have wondered: why are they doing what they’re doing to my dirt road? Although every crew does things slightly different, general tasks are consistent around the county. I will simply explain the process from my view as a former Road Foreman and current Dirt and Gravel Road Specialist here at the Bradford County Conservation District.
For this first article, we will focus on the upcoming spring maintenance season.
Most crews are hoping to start spring maintenance by April 15th. This, of course, is dependent upon weather and road conditions and the amount of frost in the road base (road material found underneath the driving surface). Frost can wreak havoc on road systems, especially when we have a fast thaw. Although we want the snow and ice gone as soon as possible, a fast thaw of the road surface can leave a soupy, muddy mess on top of a still frozen road base. This issue can be costly to remedy. In the best-case scenario, municipalities can limit roads to light traffic only and maybe add some clean stone material to stabilize the road surface until it heals, or worst case, they have to dig up the existing road and replace it with new, dryer road material. Once the roads are dry and stable enough to begin regular maintenance, then begins the spring maintenance season.
So, let’s look at the maintenance priorities for spring. The priority is to grading. This is the process of using a motor grader to physically reshape the road surface by cutting and loosening the road material and reshaping it to the desired finished slope/crown (properly crowned roads will have a high spot in the center of the roadway, allowing water to run off to either side). Grading of the roads is done each spring and fall to combat the following problems associated with Gravel roads. Wheel ruts, which are a product of vehicle tires wearing down the road surface and forming grooves in the road that trap water, this is because over the course of a year most traffic runs in the same wheel tracks. Grading also alleviates other issues such as washouts along the road edge and potholes. It is also helpful for reincorporating loose road material that has rolled to the edge of the roadway and formed a berm, which also traps water on the road.
Along with grading roads, the crews will do as-needed repairs of eroded road ditches. This is sometimes only spot work, as early in the spring many ditches may still be too wet to work in without causing more issues. Sometimes disturbing already wet soils can simply cause more erosion problems.
Spring is also an important time for the road foremen and supervisors to be out in the municipality evaluating road needs. They will make note of roads that have significant drainage issues, failing cross pipes, and areas that need additional road material (gravel). This is an important process as estimates must be put together for needed materials and costs and this helps determine if any bidding is required.
To answer a popular question: Why does it take a while for a township to get to a particular road…?
#1 – Once a crew starts in an area, it is very inefficient to pick up and move all the necessary equipment to another area in the municipality. It is most efficient to start in one area and methodically work their way to the rest of the township. #2 – It takes time to do a good job! Depending on equipment and manpower available and number of hours worked in a day, it can take a while to get to every road. Usually, 4-6 weeks depending on the weather. A good crew without other issues or interruptions can grade from 1-3 miles of road per day in good conditions. Take a municipality with 60 miles of gravel roads. In a perfect world, they might do 3 miles a day, so 20 days (or 4 weeks) would do it. Add into that, break downs, weather, and road issues in other areas that need addressing other than grading and you quickly will spend 5-6 weeks minimum grading roads. Keep in mind that to properly grade a road, the grader is going to make 6-8 passes on each mile of road at a not very fast pace, after that the stone rake and/or roller will do the same. This all adds up to a large amount of time spent to ensure that your roads are in good shape and safe to drive on. Honestly, some road crews seem to do an impossible amount of work in a year’s time when you consider everything that must be done. It truly takes a talented and ambitious crew of operators to manage and implement all aspects of municipal road maintenance and to do it proficiently. For municipalities with tar and chip or paved roads, (not covered in this article) there is even more to be done in the spring.
Let’s not forget dust oil! Everyone wants their dust oil, and this is best applied after the spring grading is done. One thing you might want to remember, moisture is generally more prevalent in the spring. So, a late application of dust oil is not necessarily a bad thing as it may end up lasting longer into the sometimes long and dusty fall season.
These are just some of the challenges faced by your local municipality. I hope this gives you a better understanding of the process of maintaining municipal roads. As always, if you happen to come across your local road crew, be sure to thank them for taking care of the roads that take you safely out into the world.
The Bradford County Conservation District is committed to helping people manage resources wisely. You can visit the Bradford County Conservation District at 200 Lake Rd in Wysox across from the Wysox Fire Hall. Contact us at (570) 485-3144 or visit our web page at www.bccdpa.com.
Various staff at the Bradford County Conservation District