Paving the Way: The Roads to Pave

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(Host) There are 3,200 miles of state maintained highways in Vermont. Maintaining those roads is a battle against the elements and budget constraints. And the state is gradually losing ground.

In the second part of our series on making ends meet on Vermont’s highways, VPR’s Steve Zind looks at how the state chooses which roads to repair.

(Zind) It all begins with a million-dollar van owned by a Canadian company. Every two years, the van cruises each mile of state highway in Vermont. Instruments mounted on the axles gauge the smoothness of the roads. Lasers on the bumper measure rutting and wear. And high resolution video cameras record cracks in the road’s surface.

Around the state, there are also weight and motion sensors imbedded in the pavement which gather information about the weight and volume of the traffic using the road.

All of this data is entered into a computer at the Agency of Transportation, along with one more critical piece of information.

(Hedges) “We’re able to input our expected budget for the year and based on that dollar figure it will come up with the optimal paving program for us.”

(Zind) Michael Hedges manages the state’s paving program. He’s on his way to look over a project underway on Route 7 in Middlebury.

Hedges says the agency uses computer modeling and on-site inspection to arrive at the most cost-effective fixes.

In the next fiscal year, $40 million in state and federal money is earmarked for highway maintenance and repairs. That’s for paving only. It doesn’t include bridges or new road construction. But it’s still not enough.

(Hedges) “At the current funding level, at about $40 million dollars a year, conditions across the state are going to deteriorate somewhat.”

(Zind) Hedges says it would take more than twice the money Vermont spends on highways to keep up with the rate at which roads are deteriorating.

And the rate is dramatic. According to Agency of Transportation figures, at current spending levels, in four years more than sixty percent of state highways will be in what’s termed “very poor condition.” Today the figure is less than fifteen percent.

Until this fiscal year, the amount of money earmarked for paving in the transportation budget had declined for the past five years. Over that same period the total appropriation for the agency has increased.

Road repairs, bridges and new construction all compete for transportation dollars. Opponents of the Circumferential Highway in Chittenden
County say that’s one more reason the $220 million dollar project should be scrapped.

Lucy Gibson is a transportation engineer and consultant for the Smart Growth Collaborative, which opposes the Circ. The collaborative has proposed a two-lane road wit series of traffic roundabouts it says would do a better job of solving congestion problems at a much smaller price.

Gibson says the savings could be used for badly needed maintenance and repairs.

(Gibson) “There’d be a lot of bridges that could be fixed or intersections that could be fixed or safety improvements. There’s a long backlog of projects that are more basic fixing infrastructure rather than expanding roads.”

(Zind) Gibson says the proposed roundabouts could handle projected increases in traffic over the next twenty years.

But Agency of Transportation Secretary Dawn Terrill says the Circ Highway is an important part of Vermont’s transportation future.

(Terrill) “We can’t just look at the immediate needs. But we have to be anticipating what we’re going to need twenty to thirty years from now. And that does include new capacity.”

(Zind) One problem with the state’s existing highway system is that much of it deteriorates quickly. Underneath the pavement of a well-built highway there’s up to five feet of crushed stone and sand to distribute the load and withstand the elements. But Hedges says more than half of the state maintained highways are what the department classifies as cow paths – old wagon roads that were simply paved over.

(Hedges) “They were never really engineered. They never had the material scooped out and replaced with select granular materials so they tend to deteriorate very quickly.”

(Zind) The so-called cow paths have to be paved every five or ten years. A well designed highway lasts up to twenty years.

Hedges says the state gives a higher priority to the most traveled highways. The ones that get less traffic tend to be the ones in the worst shape.

Prioritizing paving projects may be a science for the Agency of Transportation, but can be an emotional issue for Vermonters. Sometimes a public outcry forces the department to move up a planned project. That happened last year over a stretch of I-89 north of Waterbury.

Dick Mazza chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

(Mazza) “The issue is that there are many more roads that need paving than money we have to go around. So when people say, ‘how come my road is as bad as this road, why isn’t it being paid?’ I think the agency does a great job with all the facts and figures they use.”

(Zind) Mazza says there’s no near-term solution for the shortfall in highway repair money. Vermonters will have to brace themselves for an increasingly bumpy ride on the state’s highways.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

(Host) Tomorrow we’ll get a behind the scenes look at the science and the machinery of a paving project.

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