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Back to the old days? Paved county roads may go back to gravel

SEVERAL roads throughout Becker County are now in such disrepair that the county is talking about turning them back into gravel due to maintenance costs.1 / 2
COUNTY ROAD 118 NEAR FRAZEE IS IN SAD SHAPE and the county has proposed reverting the road to gravel. At a recent public meeting, residents along the road said they'd like to keep it paved as long as possible, but the county says it can't afford the $300,000 it would take to rebuild and repave the 1.8-mile stretch. Other low-use county roads are also being considered for gravel road status.2 / 2

Some lesser-traveled county roads may revert to gravel because the Becker County Highway Department just doesn't have enough money to maintain all the existing paved county roads.

Case in point is County Road 118, a 1.8-mile paved road that goes southeast from Frazee past Fisher Lake to link up with a gravel road in Otter Tail County.

The road was paved more than 30 years ago and is now potholed and crumbling, and is held together provisionally through constant patching and maintenance.

It's expensive, and the county considers it a budding safety hazard, but is balking at spending the estimated $300,000 it would cost to repave the road correctly, from the ground up.

The traffic count is less than 200 vehicles per day, and that makes the road low priority, said County Highway Engineer Brad Wentz.

A public meeting was recently held about the future of County Road 118 and attended largely by residents along the road, most of whom would like to keep the road paved, at least for now, Wentz said.

The problem is money -- or lack of it.

The county highway department now receives about $3.7 million a year to resurface and maintain its 452 miles of paved roads and 223 miles of gravel roads.

The money comes from state, federal and local coffers.

The problem is, the county needs about $6.3 million a year to maintain a 50-year life cycle on its paved roads. That includes construction and two overlays over that space of time.

"You can see we're quite a bit short," Wentz said. "So we have to really prioritize which roads we're going to do. Those very low volume roads -- less than 200 cars a day -- just don't have priority."

The county highway budget has essentially been stagnant over the past 10 years, barely keeping up with inflation, Wentz said.

If the County Board hadn't decided several years ago to kick in an extra $600,000 a year -- a commitment it continues to make -- the highway department would really have a hard time keeping up with maintenance requirements, Wentz said.

The state raised its gas tax a few years ago, and that money is used for highway maintenance, but it also changed its formula to send a larger share to the metro area, so Becker County basically broke even, Wentz said.

It would cost an estimated $11,000 to restore County Road 118 to a gravel road, and then about $2,000 per year, per mile to maintain it as a gravel road, Wentz said.

The county has been spending about $5,000 per year, per mile to maintain the deteriorating pavement on County Road 118, although that includes snow removal costs, Wentz said.

The pavement is old, it's in poor condition, and the roadway is crumbling on the sides in some places and is in poor shape.

The county won't be able to hold the road together much longer. It could deteriorate rapidly in a year, or it could take four or five years; it's difficult to say, Wentz said.

"We have to weigh out when to turn it into gravel," he said.

The County Board will have the final say on the road. If it is reverted to gravel, the county will talk to Burlington Township about possibly accepting it as a township road.

That portion of the road that is within Frazee city limits may remain paved and be turned over to the city, if the city is OK with that, Wentz said.

But County Road 118 is not alone in the possibility of reverting to a gravel road.

"Any paved county road we have that has less than that (200 cars per day) traffic volume would be an option," Wentz said. "There are a few others in poor condition."

He named County Road 150 and County Road 115, both mostly in Silver Leaf Township west of Frazee, as other possibilities for reverting to gravel in the future.

"These roads, if we don't do maintenance, will turn back to gravel on their own, and that will be worse than gravel -- you can't grade the roughness out of it then."

Residents fear losing their paved roads to "washboardy" gravel roads, but Wentz said gravel roads sometimes get a bad rap.

"We have quite a bit of gravel rods and they're in good shape," he said. "We hire contractors to take care of our gravel roads in different areas of the county."