At a crossroads
The fate of our secondary roads may be in the balance.
By Tom Kuennen, Contributing Editor
Against the backdrop of stalled federal surface transportation reauthorization and threats from reduced state and local funding, secondary roads are at an intersection.
Secondary roads are the essential links to the primary highway system. They link farms to homes, farms to markets, and homes to homes. They move timber from forests to mills and processing plants, raw materials from mines, and provide public access to outdoor recreation and social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals.
The vast majority of the nation’s centerline miles are secondary roads. According to Bureau of Transportation Statistics from 2006 — the most recent year for which firm data are available — some 25 percent of the nation’s highways was owned by state and federal government, but 75 percent, or 2.9 million miles of America’s roads, was owned by counties, cities and townships.
The vast majority of these local roads is secondary in nature, as well as a large portion of the state-owned roads.
Battered by heavy agricultural and truckloads, most were not built to withstand long term, and by age and the elements, secondary roads serve essential areas of the nation that would not otherwise be accessible. But because they serve remote areas with rural populations they lie out of the public eye, and they suffer, perhaps not coincidentally, from chronic underfunding.
But while funding, maintenance and preservation for secondary roads may be endangered in lean times such as these, there are options for local agencies.
“Local roads matter,” says the National Association of County Engineers (NACE), which has taken a special interest in promoting the needs of secondary systems in the ongoing SAFETEA-LU reauthorization. “Counties are responsible for 1.74 million miles of roads. This is about 43 percent of the total road mileage in the United States.”
Complicating the understanding of secondary road needs is the lack of a standard definition of what a secondary road is. We have primary roads that constitute part of the National Highway System, thus by logic we also have secondary roads. But secondary roads can be county roads, municipal roads, local roads, timber roads, unpaved roads, and low-volume roads. Which is it?
“The cleanest definition of a secondary road is a non-numbered route,” says Steve Varnedoe, P.E., associate director, National Center for Pavement Preservation at Michigan State University. “At the state level, primary routes carry either interstate, U.S. or state route designations, while the secondary system typically is assigned a unique county-wide numbering sysem.”
But many states also have low-volume secondary roads in their system. In Missouri they aren’t numbered, but named with letters. In Texas they can be Farm-to-Market Roads. “In North Carolina [where Varnedoe worked as state maintenance engineer, and later, chief engineer, through 2008] they are called S.R. routes, which stands for ‘secondary road’ classification,” Varnedoe tells Better Roads. “That’s not uncommon because most states will have a few secondary roads which serve as arterials that will connect to the main state routes, or some that are strictly local or county-wide in function.”
The No. 1 issue that owners of secondary roads are facing is that a lot of the secondary roads were not designed for robust use, Varnedoe says. “When they were designed and constructed, they were paved with a standard design of a thin pavement section over a stone base,” he says. “That same design standard might be used throughout the system. They would not go into the level of subsurface investigation that would be used in building a state or primary highway, so the result many times is a hodgepodge of sections without a lot of construction history. The decisions on maintaining them then are based on visual conditions.”
Paying for them is another major problem facing owners, Varnedoe points out. “Funding is a big challenge,” he said, “but a lot of the secondary roads just haven’t had the same level of planned maintenance and preservation that the higher-service roads have.”
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