Zen & the Art of Highway Maintenance

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Union Brook Rd   Google MapsGrass growing up through the cracks.  Oddly shaped quick-fix patches.  $2.1 million in repaving work and only $82k in the highway budget.  

It’s going to take a lot of Zen meditation to come to terms with the conflicts between (1) roads and nature and (2) societal needs and municipal costs.

The first conflict — road vs. nature — can be found across much of northern New England, primarily in the relationship between deep winter frost and temporary pave-over solutions.

Many of Vermont’s roads weren’t planned or constructed to today’s standards.  Gravel roads, some of which may be in excess of 125 years old, were paved without considering the need to create a frost-resistant sub-surface base.

As a result — both on the local and state level — there are many roads where we simply pave over problems — and these problems will continue until roads are completely dug up and built to today’s drainage standards.  Until then, we’re stuck with inevitable cracks, bumps, and holes.  Unless we come up with creative solutions.

For example, what if instead of paving, we use heavy duty, interlocking porous pavers on roads with posted speed limits of 35mph or less?  Would it work?  Who knows?  Maybe Northfield could create a pilot project with help from the Agency of Transportation.  The point is, we need to be creative.  Throwing money at a pave-over solution with a lifespan of ten years or so is less than ideal.   TRUCKGRID MAX   Permeable Paving   Trucks  HGV s  Forklifts  Bus  Coaches  Cars

The second conflict — need vs. cost — boils down to a cost/benefit equation.  Frankly, we need to think about how many people  are served for each mile of road in order to analyze the costs and benefits.  We also need to think of roads in context to the way we want Northfield to develop in the future.  Zen and the Art of Highway Maintenance.png

This leads to the Zen of highway maintenance.   The question we need to ask in regard to Northfield’s transportation needs is, “What does transportation look like over the next 30 or so years, as vs. present needs?”  This is as much of a demographic and land-use question as it is about roads.

For example, if we want more one-family homes on subdivided lots then we need to put more money into road maintenance.  Rural sprawl has been the primary residential growth pattern in Vermont for decades.  It has led to the construction of more roads but with less traffic per mile than in other locations.  Economic inefficiency in highway maintenance is a direct outcome of rural sprawl.

Rural Sprawl
Rural Sprawl Development

But looking to the future we need to ask, how does the Millennial Generation want to live?  If we want to grow Northfield’s tax base, we need to think about attracting new residents who may then support more businesses.  In order to attract new residents, we need to think about the type of residential life they prefer.  And then we need to invest in infrastructure which supports these types of residential developments.

This means thinking about Millennials who want to live differently than Boomers.  From the 1960s through the 1990s, rural lifestyle meant having a house in the woods with plenty of trees between neighbors.  But as the latest generation comes of age, we’re seeing a different pattern — Millennials prefer downtowns and neighborhoods.

Report  To Attract More Millennials  Vermont Must Improve Transportation Services   Vermont Public Radio
VPR:  To Attract More Millennials, Vermont Must Improve Transportation Services.

If Northfield needs growth, we need to accommodate the preferences of those who may choose to live here.  For Millennials, this may mean dense housing with adequate amenities — like high-speed internet, an exercise facility, and maybe even group spaces.  This type of housing development contributes very little, if anything, to the cost of road maintenance.

But let’s assume for the moment that we need to focus on simply maintaining the roads falling into disrepair.  What can we do about it?

Well, there’s an answer to this question — and it’s pragmatic, not Zen-metaphysical.

The Better Roads program  provides planning assistance and grants which can help Northfield come up with a comprehensive approach to highway maintenance.  Ideally, we could create a GIS map identifying problem areas, as well as a thorough inventory of culverts and potential areas of stream-side erosion.  Northfield has been working with the State in other planning areas, including a Town Forest inventory assessment, the Downtown Action Team report, and the Area Wide Plan (currently underway).  It would make sense to add a transportation component to complement other comprehensive reports.

Another benefit from a comprehensive highway maintenance plan would be to improve education about best practices.  For example, recent work on Stony Brook Road doesn’t comply with state requirements.  Stormwater is supposed to flow away from roads into ditches which reduce erosion and runoff.  As you can see from the pictures below, sections of road shoulders here may get ripped out during a summer downpour.  Work that has already been done may need to be re-done later this season.  Click on a picture to see full size.

If we apply for a grant from the Better Roads program, we’ll have a comprehensive plan, a better-educated road crew and as a result, lower costs in road maintenance.

It doesn’t take much Zen meditation to apply for a grant.  The 2017 funding cycle is closed, so we’re going to have to wait.  But maybe we’ll get there.  In the meantime we might consider the problem of repaving over problems that won’t go away.

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