Dirt roads dThe roadbuilders in Omaha, Nebraska, have come up with an interesting way to deal with potholes. It could be roughly summarised as: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Instead of filling them in and smoothing the road back out again they simply shred the bitumen, turning the entire surface into a gravel road. It’s all about saving money and it’s likely to become a common procedure in years to come. In America anyway, we can only hope not here.

The local government authorities over there, the ones charged with taking care of the roads, blame the property developers who obviously face less stringent obligations than in Australia. They say when developers sub-divide and service land, they build the cheapest roads they can get away with. So the roads look good and work well while the development is being sold and then, well what do they care? Such roads don’t have near the longevity of those built to normal standards. The money-saving goes further than this, it’s possibly the reason footpaths are practically non-existent in many parts of suburban America.

When the roads start falling apart residents complain to the local authorities. In Omaha the residents of Leavenworth Street had been complaining about the potholes for years and were excited when they saw a road crew arrive and shred the bitumen surface. Then they waited for new bitumen to be laid. And waited and waited. After three years they were informed that their street had been ‘reclaimed’, Omaha City Hall’s euphemism for returning a road to dirt.

According to the New York Times a study done last year revealed that 27 of America’s 50 states have seen such pavement-to-gravel conversions, in most cases in rural areas or small towns rather than major cities. But now it’s happening in Omaha, the biggest city in Nebraska with a population of almost half a million people, and it’s happening in streets close to centre of town.

Dirt roads cResidents who bought into developments with paved roads now have to deal with dust blowing in from the street and gravel been thrown by tyres into their yards, not to mention the challenges of driving in a loose surface, an experience with which many Americans are entirely unfamiliar.

“I wouldn’t like it and neither do the residents that live on those streets,” said Omaha mayor Jean Stothert said. “We are about 50 years behind where we should be as far as resurfacing and repair. I can’t catch up on 50 years of neglect in three or four years.”

All over the United States people are paying the price for decades of neglect of infrastructure. In Ohio uninhabited streets are being closed off even if they carry through traffic. After years of inattention parks are being closed and allowed to return to their natural state, a process city officials call ‘renaturing’, and some decaying bridges are being closed and torn down when there’s no money for replacements. People just have to drive to the next bridge.

In some cases the local authorities are offering to split the cost of resurfacing paved roads, and bringing them up to normal standards, with the residents who live along the road. They tell the residents they saved money when they bought their land because the developers had cut corners, now they had to pay the price. Most of the residents, who have spent years paying local taxes, don’t take this line of argument at all well.

Published April 2017


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