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Attention sought for state's unpaved roads

| Saturday, June 29, 2013, 10:36 p.m.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
A car passes by the end of Manor Drive, a gravel road, on Nunamaker Hill Road in Manor Township on Saturday, June 29, 2013. Manor Drive is slated for repairs starting next month under the state's Dirt and Gravel Road program.

Janice Held tries to avoid driving on the unpaved lower end of Manor Drive in Armstrong County's Manor Township.

“It has ruts that you have to straddle,” said Held, 65, who lives on the paved portion of Manor Drive.

The unpaved section, near Nunamaker Hill Road, is one of 14,400 sites across Pennsylvania where dirt and gravel roads are in such poor shape that they threaten nearby streams and vehicles using the roads, according to the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts.

For 16 years, the state has doled out $5 million annually to combat the problem. The money improved conditions at about 2,400 sites, the association said.

State leaders hope to pass legislation on Sunday to provide an additional $2 billion a year or more for transportation needs across the state. The multibillion-dollar debate in Harrisburg over transportation funding has focused largely on urban highways, bridges and transit systems. A proposed sevenfold increase in funding for the state's dirt and gravel road maintenance program, to $35 million annually, has gained little attention.

Yet work on dirt and gravel roads is critically important, said Robert B. Maiden, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts.

“Sediment pollution from dirt and gravel roads is a major problem. It kills stream or water quality, kills aquatic life and drives up costs for wastewater treatment plants,” Maiden said.

Road washouts that result in closures can lead to lengthy detours. Such detours and poor road conditions can harm rural businesses, including farms, Maiden said.

“It's a quality-of-life issue,” Maiden said.

Maiden said funding covers work on about 200 sites a year. County conservation districts distribute money to municipalities for work ranging from drainage improvements to road repairs.

Gregg Smith, the Armstrong County Conservation District's dirt and gravel road specialist, said, “Because the funding is so limited, municipalities can only do a small amount of work at a time. Work is usually done in phases over multiple years.”

The Armstrong County district is spending a combined $142,000 on 14 projects this year. All focus on drainage improvements that will divert stormwater from unpaved roads to prevent runoff from further eroding roads and carrying sediment from them into nearby streams. Road improvements would be done in future years, Smith said.

Road work can eat up money quickly. David R. Rupert, the Armstrong County Conservation District's manager, said it costs an average of $80,000 to surface one mile of unpaved road with aggregate materials — more than half of the grant money his district received this year from the state.

In Washington County, workers completed drainage work and road repairs last year on Oakleaf Road in Hopewell.

“It was barely passable with a Jeep and sediment from the road drained right into the backwaters of a county park that led to a nice fishing lake. It contributed tons and tons of sediment into that over the years,” said Matt Golden, Washington County Conservation District's erosion control technician.

Since 1997, Washington County municipalities have completed work along 26 miles of unpaved roads, but potential work is needed along another 100 miles, Golden said. Two projects totaling $89,000 are being done this year in West Pike Run and West Bethlehem townships.

Armstrong County gets more state funding because it has more unpaved roads.

Rupert said the district has a $450,000 backlog of projects that are waiting for funding.

“The increased funding could allow us to eliminate that backlog, but it definitely would not solve all of our problems,” Rupert said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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