Maintenance costs for gravel roads and paved roads in Pennsylvania differ significantly due to the contrasting nature of these road surfaces. Ninety-nine percent of residents prefer a paved road over gravel. The dust that will undoubtedly appear causes more than one council chamber to be full of concerned citizens during a hot dry summer. Although there is that one percent that prefers the gravel road because traffic tends to drive a little slower on these surfaces. I wanted to review some of the differences and similarities in maintenance costs between the two road types.
Discussions with the local PennDOT representative, revealed that gravel roads generally require lower initial construction costs compared to paved roads. The materials used for gravel roads are typically more affordable and readily available. Although good quality gravel can be a challenge in some areas. Therefore, those will pay more for suitable material. It is no secret that paved roads involve higher initial construction costs due to the need for asphalt or concrete, which are more expensive materials. Specialized equipment and skilled labor are required for the paving process and most smaller municipalities lack the experienced workers and tools to properly pave a road.
Gravel roads require regular maintenance to replenish the gravel surface, fill potholes, and fix washouts. This maintenance is generally less expensive than repaving but needs to be done more frequently to maintain a safe and smooth surface. This is where a good grader operator is like gold in keeping a road looking good with a lasting running surface. Once completed, paved roads typically have lower maintenance requirements in terms of surface upkeep. However, over time, cracks, potholes, and wear will develop, necessitating more extensive repairs or resurfacing. While these repairs are costlier, they are usually less frequent than the maintenance needed for gravel roads. It is important to remember that if you fall behind on the maintenance of a paved road you may find yourself literally starting over by grinding up the old material and laying down new. Please remember this important quote, “if you don’t have a base, you don’t have a road.” Paving a road that has not had a proper base installed is like putting a band aid on a festering wound. You’ve wasted your money, and it won’t last.
Here in Northwest Pennsylvania maintaining gravel roads during the long winter season can be challenging and costly. Snow removal requires specialized equipment, such as plows and graders, to clear the road and make it safe for travel. Soft roads can plague the plow driver and cause significant damage. The need for additional gravel and regrading after snow removal further increases maintenance expenses. Winter maintenance on paved roads typically involves snow plowing, de-icing, and applying road salt or sand. While these tasks incur costs, they are generally more straightforward and less expensive than winter maintenance on gravel roads. Of course, the application of salt is not without controversy too. The cost compared to the benefit can be questionable, particularly the environmental factor. If you can create an alternative that works as well, you will be a rich person. Many have tried, but as of this writing, nothing has been able to replace the use of salt.
Gravel roads are more susceptible to erosion and washouts caused by heavy rain or flooding. Repairing these damages adds to maintenance costs, especially in areas prone to extreme weather events. Paved surfaces offer better resistance against erosion and washouts. However, they may still require maintenance to address drainage issues, prevent water damage, and repair any damage caused by extreme weather conditions.
Gravel road surfaces tend to have a shorter lifespan compared to paved roads. Continuous maintenance, regular grading, and resurfacing contribute to the overall cost of maintaining gravel roads over time, but most municipalities are better equipped to handle these situations. Generally, paved surfaces have greater longevity and durability. Although they require periodic repairs and resurfacing, their lifespan is typically longer than that of gravel roads, resulting in lower long-term maintenance costs. A regular crack sealing program and regular tar and chip application will prove the best option. A five-year turnaround of chip sealing will keep your pavement in good condition.
To sum it all up, gravel roads generally have lower initial construction costs but require more frequent maintenance, especially in terms of surface replenishment and repair. Paved roads have higher initial costs but benefit from longer durability and less frequent maintenance needs. Winter maintenance on gravel roads is typically more challenging and costly, while paved roads offer better resistance to erosion and washouts. Environmental factors and long-term durability also influence the maintenance costs of both road types. “Fire this thing up,” get the grader out for the gravel roads or get ready to lay that blacktop down and make 99% of the residents happy.
About the Author
David L. Anthony is a member of the Keystone Municipal Solutions team of experts. He is a veteran of municipal government, having served more than 33 years in various positions of public service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about David and the Keystone Municipal Solutions team, click here.