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Gravel Road Maintenance


Question 1: Why does Oakland County, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, still have nearly 800 miles of unpaved gravel roads?

Answer: Oakland County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation based on per capita income. This is unrelated to road funding.

In fact, Michigan has been in the bottom 10 states in the nation in per capita state and local road funding since at least 1964. That means we earn more, on average, than most people in most other parts of the country, but we spend less on roads, on average, than most people in most parts of the country.

Question 2: How many gravel roads do we have in Oakland County, and how much money is available to pave them?

Answer: RCOC is responsible for nearly 800 miles of gravel roads. This is more roads than some northern Michigan counties have in total (paved and gravel combined).

We receive $1.5 million per year in federal funds to use on gravel road paving. However, it costs us about $1.5 million per mile to pave a gravel road.

Question 3: What money does RCOC use to pave gravel roads?

Answer: RCOC relies on federal road funds, derived from the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax for most major road improvements, including road widenings, reconstruction projects and gravel road paving.

The federal road dollars that come to Oakland County are distributed by the 14-member Oakland County Federal Aid Task Force Funding Committee. RCOC has two seats on this committee. Ten of the committee members represent the cities, villages and townships in the county. The remaining two represent the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and SMART, the suburban bus system, which is an eligible recipient.

However, many developers in Oakland County have paved gravel roads recently in an effort to provide better access to their developments. In fact, far more roads are every year paved by developers than by the Road Commission.

Question 4: How does the Federal Aid Task Force Funding Committee determine how much money should be used for gravel road paving?

Answer: RCOC and the county’s cities and villages submit projects to the committee (townships, by law, do not have jurisdiction over roads). The committee uses an objective point system to rate all the projects submitted, with the most points going to those projects that will do the most to reduce crashes and congestion. The projects are then ranked based on the number of points they receive, with those with the most points getting the funding. Every year, there are many, many more projects competing for funds than there are dollars available.

Projects that improve heavily-congested paved roads would always score higher than gravel-road paving projects on this scale (even the most heavily-traveled gravel roads carry far fewer vehicles and see far fewer accidents than many of the heavily congested paved roads in the county). Recognizing that gravel road paving projects would never be funded under this system, the committee agreed years ago to set aside some funds specifically for those projects. Today, that amount is $1.5 million per year.

Question 5: How does RCOC select the gravel road paving projects that receive the $1.5 million per year?

Answer: RCOC has established a set of criteria for selecting the few gravel road paving projects that it is able to do. The criteria include:

  • whether or not the road is “federal-aid eligible” (it must be officially designated as such),
  • traffic volumes,
  • accident rates,
  • the continuity of the route,
  • the amount of unpaved road in the route (with those where there is only a small gap in an otherwise paved major route being top priorities),
  • whether or not the community has made paving the road a priority,
  • the ability of the community to fund part of the local match for the project, and
  • the number of complaints about the condition of the road that RCOC receives.

Question 6: During the past year, there have been periods when the gravel roads in Oakland County seemed to have been in bad shape. Why?

Answer: One of the biggest problems faced with gravel roads is the freeze/thaw cycle we sometimes experience in January, February or March. 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. About the only thing we can do under these conditions is bring in gravel to fill the worst potholes. But, because placing gravel is very labor-intensive and time consuming, we can only do a small fraction of the problem areas. This problem can also be compounded if we also experience heavy snowfalls or unseasonably heavy rains during the same time. The heavy snows require that we devote much of our efforts to salting and plowing roads, which means we can’t focus on repairing gravel roads. Meanwhile, heavy rain can further erode the already-rough gravel roads.

Question 7: But we also experience rough gravel roads in the spring. Why?

Answer: It is typically during the “spring thaw,” that gravel roads are the greatest challenge. Typically around the end of March, the temperatures rise fairly quickly. The faster the temperatures rise, the harder it is on gravel roads. Also, the faster the temperatures rise, the less there is that the Road Commission for Oakland County (RCOC) can do about it. When the temperatures rise quickly, the snow melts faster than the ground thaws, meaning there is water everywhere and no where for it to go, as it can’t soak into the ground. The surface of gravel roads then turns to mud. When the top three or four (or more) inches of a gravel road are mud, with the consistency of soup, grading the road does nothing to improve its “drivability.”

As is the case when the roads are completely frozen in the winter, the only thing RCOC can do when the gravel roads have turned to soup is to apply new gravel. However, because this is very labor intensive, time consuming and expensive, RCOC is only able to do it on a limited basis. Additionally, when gravel is placed on top of this “soup,” it can easily be washed away with the next rain, meaning the time, effort and money put into placing the gravel was wasted. If the temperatures rise quickly, there is a very good chance RCOC will have no choice but to close gravel roads that become impassable.

Question 8: In many counties in Northern Michigan, there are either very few gravel roads, or the gravel roads are in much better shape than those in Oakland County. Why is that?

Answer: Many rural, northern counties have far fewer miles of roads than Oakland County, in general (RCOC has the largest county road system in the state), and far fewer multi-lane roads. That means that over the years, they have been able to devote more funds to gravel road paving (less road widening is needed as they have virtually no congestion). Additionally, some of these counties have dedicated countywide or township millages to help pay for the maintenance of county roads (Oakland County does not).

Additionally, the gravel roads in Oakland County carry significantly more traffic than those in most of the rural areas. In fact, many of Oakland’s gravel roads carry as much traffic as many paved primary roads in the rural counties. Gravel roads quickly deteriorate under the burden of traffic. The general rule of thumb is that a road SHOULD be paved once it exceeds 500 cars per day. In Oakland County, many gravel roads carry significantly more cars than this, with some carrying up to 5,000 cars per day.

It is not a matter of northern counties having better gravel road maintenance techniques, but rather their gravel roads simply require far less maintenance due to the significantly fewer vehicles they carry. The same is true for gravel roads in neighboring (and far more rural) Genesee, Lapeer, Livingston and Washtenaw counties.

Finally, Northern Michigan counties do not experience the freeze/thaw cycles that can play havoc with RCOC gravel roads in winter. When the ground freezes in the fall in Northern Michigan, it remains frozen until the spring.

Question 9: I pay high property taxes. Why aren’t some of my tax dollars being used to improve my gravel road?

Answer: RCOC does not receive any of your property tax dollars. As established by the state Constitution, Michigan’s road commissions are funded primarily through the state-collected gas tax, vehicle registration fees and diesel tax. RCOC competes with the cities for use of the federal gas tax revenues that are allocated to Oakland County. Your property tax dollars go to your township, the county general government (RCOC is not part of the county general government), the state, your school district, Oakland Community College, parks, etc.