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Road official urges patience on gravel roads

ALPENA — Maintaining gravel roads in Northeast Michigan and making them as passable as possible is a challenge for area road commissions, as weather and other issues specific to gravel makes it nearly impossible for crews to keep the roads maintained to the standard residents expect.

Alpena, Montorency, Alcona and Presque Isle counties have about 1,900 miles of gravel or dirt roads, officials said, and their condition can change abruptly because of weather or the type, thickness, and moisture content of the gravel and the type of spoil under it.

The level of the water table, the road’s ability to drain, and traffic also contribute to the deterioration of the roads.

Alpena County Road Commission Managing Director Larry Orcutt said there are about 400 miles of gravel roads in his county. He is contacted often during specific times of the year when the roads are in poor condition.

There are times, however, that gravel road maintenance can’t be done, he said.

If, for example, the roads are saturated with water, grating can’t be done. The same is true if the gravel is too dry.

He said crews are always working to improve the roads, and that comes with significant expense.

But maintaining the gravel still is much more affordable than putting a hard surface on. Paving a road costs about $600,000 per mile, Orcutt said.

“We just don’t get enough money to even come close to doing that,” he said.

In the winter, Orcutt said, there are days when driving is somewhat smooth on gravel roads because snow and ice freeze and fill potholes. When that thaws, however, they become a nuisance.

No matter the time of year, it is important for people to drive at a speed that is suitable for their car and safety, he said.

“There are no speed limits on a lot of gravel roads, because the conditions of them change and you can’t set a consistent speed on them,” Orcutt said.

The potholes can damage cars or trucks, Orcutt said. He said that is why it is important to drive at a speed that helps limit the abuse of their vehicle.

When crews are able to get out and grade the road, Orcutt said, it still takes time to cover all the area that needs it. He said a motor grader can only do six miles in eight hours, and time is tight because of weather.

Orcutt wants to assure the public that everything possible is being done to address issues with the gravel roads and preserving public safety is the highest priority. He said he wants people to understand the process and be patient.