After personal vehicles became common across America, roads progressed from dirt to gravel to the asphalt and concrete of today. But for cash-strapped small towns, taking a step back to gravel could mean saving a lot of money in costly repairs.
Cranberry Isles, Maine — population 118 — is facing a $500,000 bill to fix its deteriorating roads, and Selectman Richard Beal says ripping them out and replacing them with gravel may be the wiser choice.
"Do we really need to keep getting fancier? This is also about quality of life,” says Beal.
Montcalm County in Michigan has already turned 10 miles of pavement into gravel. Municipalities in Pennsylvania, Vermont and Indiana have done the same, mostly on rural roads that aren’t well traveled.
Between diminishing tax revenue and asphalt prices doubling over the past three years, some towns feel they don’t have a choice — but not all drivers are happy with the proposal, citing dust and damage to their vehicles.
Asphalt and gravel roads both have their own environmental impacts. Derived from petroleum, asphalt releases volatile substances into storm runoff and requires salt and de-icing chemicals. Sediment runoff from gravel roads is a major polluter of streams.
Greener alternatives to asphalt exist but may not be a feasible solution for towns that are considering gravel for budgetary reasons. Greenpatch, a recyclable, biodegradable and nontoxic form of asphalt, eliminates many of the environmental downsides but costs at least as much as conventional asphalt.
Other municipalities in Michigan will soon go the way of Montcalm County, tearing up gravel roads whether locals like it or not.
"Michigan's funding situation has been dire for years, and now it's gotten critical," says Monica Ware of the County Road Association of Michigan.