The last year has not been kind to rural roads.
“It was an ugly fall,” explains J.D. King, county engineer for Page County in southwest Iowa and president of the Iowa County Engineers Association.
And that ugly fall was followed by a tough winter and a difficult spring. The combination of those challenging weather conditions throughout the past year means many rural roads took a beating, and road maintenance crews have been playing a perpetual game of catch-up.
It also means county road budgets were flooded in red ink.
For King, the good news is that he isn’t charged with the roads a few counties west, where Missouri River flooding caused massive road damage.
“We had some flooding here, but thank God I’m not … on the Missouri River,” he says.
Iowa stands out for the number of roads that cross the state, usually in a familiar square grid pattern. According to the ICEA, Iowa’s county governments care for about 4,425 miles of dirt roads, another 66,237 miles of gravel roads and 18,759 miles of paved roads. That doesn’t count state or federal roads.
“It has been a real challenge,” says Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, a group representing 13 state soybean boards. “This year has been really problematic.”
Each state has its own funding formula for roads, but most include money from a fuel tax and from vehicle registrations. A percentage of that money goes to the state Department of Transportation, but some goes to cities and counties.
Local officials are getting creative. Some have put off major projects this year due to the need to spend their time and money repairing existing roads and bridges. Others have borrowed money from other funds or have used cash reserves.
Technology can help in targeting repairs or improving logistics, King says, but at the end of the day the job of repairing gravel roads hasn’t changed all that much.
“We’re still playing in the dirt and the dust and the mud,” he says. “That won’t go away.”
But in a bad year when more gravel is required, local governments are forced to buy at market value instead of buying in advance or at a discount. This year some quarries were also closed, and some gravel or sand had to be bought at a premium or hauled a longer than normal distance.
Eventually, this may lead to a deeper discussion about rural roads — how many roads are needed, how they are built and who they serve, Steenhoek says. Iowa’s rural road system certainly wasn’t designed for today’s large farm equipment, he adds.
In the meantime, King and his fellow engineers are trying to find ways to keep the existing roads open and to replace bridges in a timely fashion so that the roads remain safe.