March 28, 2012

Town struggles to keep gravel roads open

As published in The Erin Advocate

Town crews have been scrambling to keep gravel roads passable during a spring thaw that Road Superintendent Larry Van Wyck called "the worst on record".

(Second Line)

He reported to council last week on the impact of unseasonably warm weather, which has made small sections of many roads dangerously soft and muddy. One short-term strategy is to scrape off the top layer and put down a layer of large crushed stone, ideally filling the mud hole down to a firmer base and bridging the weak spot.

"It is a band-aid at best, but there is no other solution," he told council. "A large number of houses will be inaccessible if we don't do this. We're having limited success, and if it rains it may be worse."

(Fourth Line)

School buses are getting through, using caution, he said. Crews are trying to spread the wet gravel out over longer distances, hoping the wind will dry it out. There is no tally on the cost yet, but loads of stone are more expensive than gravel. The Town has three graders, each responsible for 65 km of roads.

Mayor Lou Maieron said people should call the roads department so the Town will be aware of all problem areas. He noted that it is not feasible to simply pave the surface of existing roads – they need to be built with a proper base and drainage, sometimes with a higher road level, which is an expensive process.

"There has been an evolution of rural roads, moving on from paths or country trails to roads, and probably there are sections that were not properly constructed," said Maieron.

Van Wyck said many of Erin's rural roads were built as one-lane dirt roads suitable for public needs 100 years ago. Residential traffic volumes on gravel roads have increased dramatically with the increased popularity of country living, and the agriculture traffic has steadily increased in size and weight, he said.

"It is a fact of life, if you live in the country," said Councillor Josie Wintersinger.

Resident Karen Seitz wrote to council to say that sideroad conditions near Hillsburgh have gotten steadily worse over the last eight years.

"I have been told that there is nothing to be done at this time, but that is not good enough," she said. "This is a safety issue, and injury or death is not an option. You need to at least try something to make these roads drivable. We pay our taxes to have these things taken care of for us, so that is what we expect to be done.

"Not only are our vehicles being ruined, but our lives are in danger. My tire got caught in a mud rut last evening and it almost pulled me into a ditch. This is ridiculous and something needs to be done right away."

Another resident reported seeing pieces of logs from the original corduroy-style construction emerging from the mud.

"Each year the number of problem areas varies, but this does seem to be particularly bad relative to other years," said Van Wyck. "Spring thaw starts from the top down, which leaves an expanded, saturated layer of mud over a barrier layer of frost and ice...that prevents moisture from draining down or away from the surface."

This annual problem was made worse by a large amount of rainfall in the fall, followed by unseasonable freeze/thaw cycles in January and February.

"Typically, we don't see this kind of freeze/thaw until later in the year," said Van Wyck. "There is little we can do to smooth a road when it thaws, turns to mud, gets rutted, and then quickly freezes again (we can't grade a frozen road or a road that is mud). We faced a seesaw of freeze/thaw, which made any type of road maintenance virtually impossible. In addition subsequent rain further eroded the already rough gravel roads."

The Town will have access to a supply of low-cost gravel this year when Hydro crews finish the new line of transmission towers through Erin, and the temporary roads needed for that construction are removed. Those 4,000 truck loads may end up being stored temporarily on a section of Barbour field that is not being used for sports, said Van Wyck.