Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Gravel Roads

I often have occasion to drive down the Lake Road to Tatamagouche. The first four miles are paved and the last eight miles are gravel; the break comes at the County line. The Lake Road is surprisingly busy, especially early in the morning with folk driving to Debert to work at the industrial park. It's busy late at night as well, judging by the fast food wrappers and garbage that litters the shoulders. And for a few too many weeks in spring the Lake Road is almost impassable.

The first time the Lake Road has been closed in years.

The Lake Road has been around for probably 150 years. One of my neighbours told me that the way these roads were cut was that someone would go to the top of the next hill, climb the tallest tree and tie a sheet on to the top. The men would chop their way to the top of that hill, and then repeat the process and chop to the next hill. Once the area was settled the roads were straightened some, and they were also changed to go around the hills rather than go over every one. I have three different alignments of my road on my property.

These roads had no gravel base, initially. They were just mud, and they were no more than tracks. Few had ditches or culverts, so they were "passable with caution" just about all the year. The best time to travel those roads was in the winter, when the ground was frozen and the snow was packed down, and the sleighs and sleds could slide easily.

This section is almost impassable.

Many of the gravel roads north of the Cobequids have never really been improved. In the 1950's and 1960's the government hired local contractors to "rebuild" many of these roads by working along them with an excavator to carve out ditches and at the same time put the cut material onto the roadbed to build it up. Parts of the Lake Road were also re-aligned at that time, but no serious effort was made to strengthen the base with rock and gravel - it was still just a dirt road with a skiff of gravel on the top.

In 1989 the government of the day paved the Cumberland County section of the Lake Road. They built up the roadbed with small rock, then coarse gravel and then fine gravel, and then they double-chip-sealed the surface. (Chip sealing is laying down a layer of tar and then gravel, with the road traffic pressing the gravel into the tar to create pavement.) Such "paving" was great for the first few years and then it became just awful. The Department of Transportation began to salt the road in winter, but chip seal isn't waterproof so the salty water flowed through the pavement and into the gravel below, and froze and heaved and created potholes. Road traffic deepened the potholes, but the worst of it was that these potholes had hard edges. Potholes on dirt roads have rounded edges, so while they are still rough and hard to drive on, they don't usually break tires and dent rims.

The Lake Road was in really bad shape in the middle 1990's, which was about the time that Mr Chretien and Mr Martin were balancing the federal budget on the backs of the provinces. The Province of Nova Scotia had no choice but to pass the hard times on to the municipalities, and they also cut back on the amount of road repairs that they could afford. So the Lake Road was rough, and stayed rough, and people's cars began to wear out early.

In response to complaints the Department of Transportation began to float the idea of tearing up the chip seal pavement and returning the Lake Road to gravel. This was being considered very seriously, because the cost of maintaining a gravel road was the cost of grader time, while the cost of maintaining a paved road involved cash contracts to paving companies. In the end, the Lake Road was re-paved with re-constituted pavement created from the asphalt paving chewed up off the TransCanada Highway when a portion of that was re-paved. This has long since worn off, and the existing pavement has been narrowed as the snowplows chew off the edges of the pavement. The Lake Road needs some serious attention, and our MLA raises the need as he meets with the Department of Transportation officials every month.

The future of rural paved roads is uncertain. In many municipalities in the USA paved roads are being returned to gravel, just because it is too expensive to maintain them. In municipalities where tax revenues pay for road maintenance, the collapse of the housing market has meant decreased assessments, which means lower tax revenues, compounded by an increase in the number of homeowners in arrears with their taxes. Most American states may not run deficits (like our Nova Scotia municipalities), so this year's deficit has to be met with the first call on next year's tax revenue. That's hard to do.

At the same time, the cost of asphalt has risen. Tar is a byproduct of crude oil refining, where the light hydrocarbons are distilled off for gasoline and diesel fuels, the heavier stuff is distilled out as Bunker C oil for seagoing vessels and large heating plants, and the heaviest residual gunk is sold as paving tar. This all made sense economically when crude oil cost $20 per barrel in the 1990's and early 2000's. But by 2005 the price of crude had doubled, and by 2008 it had doubled again, and since then the price of crude oil has stayed consistently above $100 per barrel. So the cost of road tar has quintupled in the past dozen years.

Just to compound the troubles, the grades of crude oil available to refineries has changed. Many refineries were designed to handle heavy crudes, which had residual tars as a product. With the increase in light crude oils coming out of the American shale oil plays there has been a decrease in heavy fractions available for road tar. The Imperial Oil refinery in Dartmouth has closed and no longer supplies tar, and the Irving refinery in Saint John is increasingly using the light grades, so there is less tar around, which also contributes to upward pressure on prices.

One of the reasons that our cars have such trouble on gravel roads is that the cars are designed to run on smooth paved roads. Modern cars are heavy, and the wheels are heavy with disk brakes and heavy suspension and a low centre-of-gravity, all designed to keep a modern car stable at highway speeds. The first cars were much lighter, both in total weight and in running gear. The wheels had spokes, which kept them light, and the suspension was high and bouncy. They were designed to operate on gravel roads, as paved roads were rare then. Here's a photo of a Ford Model A, which was in production until 1931. It was designed for rough roads. Cars may look like this once again.

Our economy is sputtering and with oil prices so high there is lots of talk (at least where I read) of slow to no economic growth in the future, which will mean that there will be a lot less money for road maintenance. This year's awful spring condition of the Lake Road may be the new normal. Not something I look forward to.

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