Miscellany — From the November 2017 issue

Bumpy Ride

Why America’s roads are in tatters

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Ken Skorseth began his road-construction career in South Dakota in the early Seventies, as a private highway contractor. His training embraced a dogma that hadn’t changed in half a century: roads went from dirt or gravel to asphalt. Period. “I got in on the latter part of the interstate highway construction era,” he told me. “County commissioners would tell you they had a goal to make all county roads ‘black.’ In other words, asphalt.”

He became superintendent of the Deuel County Highway Department in 1981. His focus was on maintaining low-volume roads, those (paved or unpaved) with few passenger miles — fewer than 250 vehicles a day. Soon enough, the principles he had learned earlier in his career were turned upside down: flat budgets, rising costs, and heavier farm equipment meant that keeping roads paved was increasingly impossible. Desperate to keep such routes passable, he quickly turned his attention to gravel. It wasn’t as if he had a choice — if he wanted to stay on budget, he needed stone, not asphalt. He left the county and took a job as the manager of a transportation program at South Dakota State University, and his reputation spread. He began getting calls from all over the world. In 2000, he was the lead author of the Federal Highway Administration’s Gravel Roads Maintenance and Design Manual. He became known as the “gravel-roads guru.”

A damaged tire outside Leon Slater’s workshop

Around the country, many roads were paved that should have remained gravel. It was an easy decision in the prosperous post–World War II years, when the petroleum products used in asphalt were cheap and labor costs were relatively low. But by the Nineties, even as the economy boomed on the coasts, the middle of the country was entering a de facto depression. At the same time, the cost of asphalt escalated. Skorseth was the man for the moment. Techniques such as chip sealing, as was done on Brickyard Road, were doomed propositions. There the local soil is clay, which holds water. Without a more substantial foundation, paving over clay will lead to potholes.

“I never dreamed that by the end of my career we would be talking about having to go back to gravel,” Skorseth said. Road engineers and politicians often sought him out for advice, but when he urged depaving roads he encountered “extreme” resistance.

“Early on we were kind of the bad guys,” he said. “We were telling people, ‘Look at the condition of your system, all the roads built in the Sixties and Seventies. How are you going to rehabilitate those with current budgets?’ It’s astounding how much it changed, particularly after 2008.” The recession that began that year has theoretically ended, but many local and state road budgets have not recovered. Suddenly Skorseth went from pariah to visionary.

The trend toward gravel caught the attention of the Transportation Research Board, part of the National Academy of Sciences, which commissioned a report. Converting Paved Roads to Unpaved was released in early 2016; Skorseth was among the authors. The T.R.B. collected data from 139 roads departments (a fraction of the thousands in the country) and found that agencies in twenty-seven states had depaved some roads, most in the past few years. Agencies in other states were in denial, Skorseth said, about the need to move to gravel.

“It was an eye-opener even to me,” Skorseth acknowledged. “Politicians talk about ‘preserving their pavement.’ I laugh at that term. The road is so bad, there’s nothing here to preserve.”

He told me that gravel is often better on a low-volume road because unlike pavement, it can be maintained by one operator with a single machine, a grader with a wide blade that makes it smooth. “I call it upgrading to gravel,” he said, since “many failing pavements are actually more dangerous to drive on than untreated gravel surfaces.”

is the author of ten books, most recently Bringing Mulligan Home. “Snowden’s Box,” which he co-wrote with Jessica Bruder, appeared in the May 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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