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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Franklin County to Pave Remaining Gravel Roads: Will not finish this year

Crews from Blevins Asphalt, based in Mount Vernon, Mo., prepare to lay a layer of stone chips on top of a fresh coat of oil on Lockhart Road in Franklin County on Aug. 31, 2011. The crews are working on the Franklin County line with Gasconade County which is marked by regular gravel road surface. photo by David Carson post-dispatch.com
Push is on to pave roads in Franklin County

September 14, 2011

FRANKLIN COUNTY • Lockhart Road dead-ends at a small cemetery near the Gasconade County border, about eight miles north of Sullivan.

The narrow country road is surrounded by rolling pastures where cows outnumber houses. Yellow wildflowers and oak trees creep to the edge of the road, which likely was once a wagon trail.

Road crews last month chip-sealed Lockhart Road, previously a stretch of gravel. Trucks squirted oil onto a base that coated the road, then dropped a layer of white trap rocks onto the black glaze. Giant rollers drove across the rocks, creating a hard surface.

"It's converting a goat path to a good road," said Buck Ahrens, a county crew supervisor who oversaw the paving job, as he drove over the hard surface.

The road's new look and feel is part of a push to pave every Franklin County-maintained road. Some residents welcome the change, while others lament the loss of gravel as a loss of rural character.

"People love pavement and there are two primary reasons: it's dust-free, and I think it is associated with a better quality of life," said Ken Skorseth, program manager of the South Dakota Local Transportation Assistance Program at South Dakota State University and lead author of "Gravel Roads Maintenance and Design Manual," the Federal Highway Administration's gravel roads guide.

But economic woes in recent years have kept local governments from paving roads. Skorseth is working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to see if some low-volume roads there should be reverted to save money in asphalt maintenance costs.

He said he's seeing an increase in gravel roads nationwide, due to reverting to gravel from a hard surface because gravel roads are cheaper to maintain and because developers are holding off on paving roads until they're certain they can afford the cost.

Skorseth also said that not everyone favors paved roads.

One opponent is Kay Genovese, 59. She lives on Grand Army Road, a few miles outside of St. Albans in the northeast part of Franklin County.

The road is beautiful and natural-looking, she said, and adds to the rural, rustic feel of the area.

She enjoys horseback riding along the sparsely traveled road, where people drive slowly so stones don't fly up and dent their cars.

"Motorcycle groups won't go touring down a gravel road. Strangers won't go down a gravel road," said Genovese, who has lived on the property for about a decade.

She worries that will change once Grand Army Road is paved — probably this spring. She is already dreading the traffic.

Bill Evans, who lives in the southeastern part of the county east of Lonedell, says more traffic on his now-gravel road will be a small price to pay for a hard surface.

"If that's the only downside, that's fine," Evans said.

His home on Frost Road is just a couple miles from the Jefferson County line. That neighboring county completed paving its 650 miles of county roads in the mid-1990s, said Bill Blackwell, the county highway supervisor. St. Louis County also paved its roads years ago, said David Wrone, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic.

Evans said there's no doubt which county you're in near his house.

"You don't have to look for a sign. When the dust comes up, you know you're in Franklin County," said Evans, who is on the county's Planning and Zoning Commission.

The road is dirty and dusty, washes out in the rain and hurls stones that dent cars and break windshields, he said.

Evans is skeptical of those who think gravel roads are a part of the area's rustic charm.

"It's rustic if you don't live on it," said Evans, 63, who has two miniature donkeys, a horse, a parrot, a potbelly pig and a llama.

He and his wife have a Nissan Murano, which they call their "go-to-town car." They take it out when the road is in good shape, such as a day after a rainfall.

Otherwise, it stays at home and they drive vehicles they care less about.

Evans' road had been slated to be chip-sealed this summer, but a wet spring probably delayed the job to next spring, he said.

Heavy spring rain, coupled with a bad economy, slowed paving across the county. But finances have, too.

Money from a $20 million bond issue approved by voters in 2007 is about to run out, and the county still has about 140 miles left to pave, said Rich Wilson, public works director for Franklin County. The county will pave just 10 to 15 miles this year.

"With the economy going downhill, there's not extra money to do it at a fast pace," Wilson said. He said it's unclear when all the roads could be finished.

And although roads in Franklin County aren't being paved as fast as some would like, the situation is more dire elsewhere around the country. Counties in Iowa, Michigan, California and South Dakota are among those that are replacing paved roads with gravel because of high asphalt prices and lean budgets, according to the National Association of Counties.

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