GRAVEL ROAD PAVING
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
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.
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
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
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
- 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.