Mud Season Madness: A dirt road expert answers your questions
This year’s mud season is full-on. So Brave Little State put your questions about dirt roads, deteriorating conditions and costs to Danville road foreman Keith Gadapee.
Here in Vermont we are blessed with more than just four seasons. Depending on how you count we might have five, or six, or, like, 10 … But what do we all agree comes during the confusing transition between winter and spring? Mud season. And by many accounts, this year’s is full-on.
“This year is extremely bad. We have got a lot of mud in all corners of the town, creating, you know, nearly impassable situations,” says Keith Gadapee, road foreman for the town of Danville, in the Northeast Kingdom. “So people sometimes have to walk. And of course, nobody wants to do that. And so people are not being able to go where they want to go. And I blame it on the fact that it got warm so quick. And there hasn't been a lot of frozen mornings to kind of stall that thawing action.”
According to our state Agency of Transportation, Vermont has more miles of dirt road than paved. And Keith Gadapee’s town, Danville, has the most dirt.
“We do have over 80 miles of dirt or gravel roads, depending on how you want to call them,” he says.
That’s not even counting Class 4 roads, which aren’t maintained year round. So Keith, suffice it to say, knows some stuff about dirt roads. Or gravel roads, depending on how you want to call them.
Over the years, Brave Little State, VPR’s people-powered journalism show, has received many listener questions about dirt roads in Vermont, and mud season. Given this year’s conditions, we thought we’d put those questions to a road expert, and Keith Gadapee generously agreed to share his knowledge.
As always, we recommend listening to the audio above if you’re able — our show is made for the ear! But we’ve also formatted the episode as a Q&A. Read on for a primer on the season that will literally stop you in your tracks.
And follow us on Instagram as we share more listener photos!
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“Why are so few roads in rural Vermont paved?” — Geoffrey Bok, Craftsbury
Keith: “Well, that's a great question. I think it all comes down to the objective of the town. You know, whether or not they feel that the traffic level is high enough to warrant a paved road. I think that has a lot to do with it. But I also think Vermont is known for its back country roads and that alone is also maybe keeping more roads gravel in Vermont, and less paved roads. Speed is always a factor, but the use, the traffic volumes, things like that, I think plays a bigger portion of it. Of course cost does as well.”
(More on cost a little later on.)
“What is it about Vermont's soils and climate that make our roads so prone to frost heaves and tire swallowing muck during spring mud season?” — Michele Morris, Jericho
Keith: “So, in Danville, and that's what I can speak about the most, our soils are [full of] clay and have a lot of silt and loam and things like that, that are not good road base material. And so unfortunately, this creates water-holding material that, when frozen, obviously expands and ice builds. When that material thaws, because there's so much water under the road and it can't escape through the ice, the water has to come up, and the water comes up. And of course, then we travel on it. And it turns the road to very muddy situations. So the freezing and thawing and the fact that there's a lot of water in the roadway that is frozen — this creates the mud in the spring when it thaws.”
“What can we do about the roads in Vermont? Isn't there a technological solution to our horrific potholes at this point?” — Ellen Starr
Keith: “Well, I mean, yes and no. I always call it “battling Mother Nature.” You know, she throws us a lot of curve balls to try to hit. And sometimes it's a little overwhelming. I mean, yes, the answer is yes, there are many different aggregates that can be used in some situations. But, since the beginning of roads, there's been mud, and there's been potholes. If we choose to live on these gravel roads, we've got to expect that because a lot of times Mother Nature gives us a challenge to make roads perfect all the time.”
Angela: “Do you think there is such a thing as roads that can be perfect all the time?”
Keith: “Absolutely not. And we can talk about paved roads as well as gravel roads, it’s that freeze-thaw situation in the soils in Vermont, you know? There can't be a road that's perfect all the time due to either those things or just, you know, the traffic. Things wear out.”
“I’m wondering how potholes and washboards form. What’s the science behind these unique architectural features on our roads?” — Coco Moseley, Lincoln
(Note: Coco Moseley is a second-time question asker; she has also asked BLS about the pros and cons of heating with wood.)
Keith: “I think there's several things that play a part in causing potholes and washboards. Obviously, the freezing and thawing at different rates in different areas of the road are going to create swells and sags as things thaw out. So that definitely plays a part in it too.
“I think another thing that plays a big part of it is the water, whether the water is staying on top of the road as cars are driving through it. And every time a tire hits this little sag in the road, you know, it creates a huge amount of force pumping the water out of the sag and bringing fines with it, [allowing] the hole to get slowly deeper and deeper and deeper as more cars go over. So [traffic amount] definitely plays a factor in it too.
“And then as far as washboards, we see washboards a lot in the summertime. Dry washboards, I call them, where, you know, traffic is going down the dirt road and the tire kind of is pushing the car along trying to spin a little bit, maybe, and turn up and ruffle up the wear surface. And then the next car comes by and it makes it a little worse even though there might not be any water in these washboards. It creates a little of what I call a ‘chatter’. Quite often you see this going up a hill because the car kind of spins its way up the hill and creates — once a little one starts, [it] gets bigger and bigger over time.”
“How does Vermont maintain all these gravel roads? I’m surrounded by beautiful gravel roads that I walk on all the time, but it seems like it must be so much work smoothing out the ruts, filling in the gulleys. How does Vermont do it?” — Jackie Spain, Wallingford
Keith: “That's a great question. You know, obviously, the town crews are geared up with equipment to maintain gravel roads. I think all towns are in the same boat, in that budgets are never big enough to support the aggregate that you lose in a season to keep them up as good as they could be. So there are hurdles financially. So I think the simple answer to that question is: The towns are equipped and are geared up for the amount of highways that they have to keep some level of maintenance for these roads.”
“Every mud season I’m told that it’s ‘more expensive’ to pave the roads than to constantly repair the dirt roads. Where is the data for that?” — Rich Grogan, Reading
“How does the cost of resurfacing and maintaining dirt roads compare to the cost of paving them? And who decides if a dirt road gets paved?” — Amanda Scull, Westminster
“What makes a town decide to leave roads unpaved? And are they cheaper to maintain?” — Nancy Wilson
Keith: “Again, it's a little bit about town objectives, you know, how much money they want to spend on roads with certain levels of traffic and service required. I can only speak about what we do in Danville but to give you an example, we divide our budget into different classes of roads. Generally, Class 2 roads are paved and generally Class 3 roads are gravel. And if this helps at all, you know, my Class 3 budget is about 40% less than my Class 2 budget. And that Class 3 budget has four times the miles of road on it than my class two budget does. And why that is, is because blacktop is very expensive. It's very expensive to install. And so when you choose to do, let's say, a mile of blacktop, that's a huge hit versus a mile of gravel road.”
“Who gets to decide if a dirt road gets paved?” — Amanda Scull, Westminster
Keith: “To pave or not to pave solely relies on the Select Board of your town or however you are organized. And obviously input from the townspeople, and from the road foreman or road commissioner, however your town is structured, whether or not to pave a road, so there's no real formula or anything that they use.”
Angela: “Is it something that eventually would go to voters? To say, ‘We definitely want to keep this road dirt,’ or, ‘Oh, we can't handle it anymore. We want to pave this.’”
Keith: “That definitely could happen. And again, depending on your Select Board, that definitely is probably a good way to do that. I know in my experience we've had townspeople come in requesting a certain road to be paved. And believe it or not, I've had townspeople requesting it not be paved as well. So, I mean, there's two sides to every coin for sure. And there's many opinions out there.”
“What are the pros and cons of dirt roads vs. paved roads?” — Steve Gladstone, Hinesburg
Keith: “The level of service on gravel roads definitely is different on paved roads. You know, in all four seasons — for example, today you're not going to be able to drive everywhere you want to go on a gravel road, because the wear surface is now mud and is nearly intravelable in many areas. Whereas today you can drive anywhere you want on a blacktop road. So there are definitely levels of service, definitely different driving conditions that all play in the decision making of whether to pave a road or maybe to keep it gravel.”
“Why do Vermonters prefer dirt roads over paved roads when some dirt roads are so bad in mud season that school buses get stuck? Some people will use speeding cars as a reason against paved roads, but those same people complain about speeding cars on their dirt roads!” — Ed Green, Westford
Keith: “That's a fantastic question. There's a lot of different reasons why people respond in different ways. First of all, as far as blacktop versus gravel, some folks I've heard [say], ‘I moved to Vermont, because I want it to live on a gravel road because it's quieter, and, you know, less traffic and less speeders and things like that.’ So I think this question is gonna be beyond me, because it's more or less figuring out people rather than figuring out the roads. So, you know, we have the same in Danville, you know, people want to live on the back road, but they also don't want people going fast. And so, you know, there's some things we just can't control. And we just have to manage accordingly. That's probably the most difficult question of the day right there.”
Angela: “Well, let me ask you personally, do you live on a paved road or gravel road, Keith?”
Keith: “I live on a gravel road, and my road was impassable this morning, by most vehicles. They were parked at the bottom of the road — the vehicles that have low clearance and things like that. But again, it was all about choice. When I chose to build my house where I did, I was willing to accept the fact that there's going to be times where I can't get out, or I've got to gear up my choice of vehicle to be able to get out in all conditions.
“I think most folks don't understand what mud season means for a road crew or a town. You know, when it snows in the winter time, we can respond to that hazard by taking snow plows out and plowing and sanding the road. Or if it's an ice storm, we can go out and sand or, you know, if a tree comes down, we can go out and we can clean that tree up that fell across the road to get rid of that hazard. Mud season is way different than that. Think about how we fix mud. We take heavy equipment out on the muddy roads that weigh 30 tons carrying gravel and stone to this desolate place that needs a load to fill in ruts or to fill in a soft spot. And to get to that spot, we might travel three or four miles to get to it on these soft roads. And if you can imagine a 30-ton truck traveling three or four miles to get to this spot, we're doing more damage getting to the bad spot than we would by not going.
“Mud season is the only season that our hands are kind of tied. So it's hard on the mind. It's hard on my guys, because they want to make everything good. We all want the same result — to make travelable roads and make it decent for people to go. But there's some times, and this year is a prime example, when everything kind of fell apart all at once. Where we can't respond to the hazard like people might think we can.”
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A huge thank you to Keith Gadapee of the Danville Highway Department for being game to answer all these questions – and to all the road crews across Vermont for tending to our roads during mud season, and all seasons.
And thanks to the many of you who shared photos of your impassable roads.
The Brave Little State team is Myra Flynn, Josh Crane and Angela Evancie; VPR’s news fellow is Marlon Hyde. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
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