The state of state roads? They’re a holey mess

CANAAN–Of the 2,042 miles of public roads in Columbia County, about 250 miles are owned by New York State and maintained by the state Department of Transportation (DOT). After this winter, many of the state roads are described by town officials and residents alike as “horrible.”

Canaan Highway Superintendent Bernie Meyer calls the state roads in his town “deplorable to the point where they’re dangerous.” Austerlitz Highway Superintendent Robert Meehan says his crew has been picking up hubcaps dislodged by the fractured roads regularly and they see several blown tires most weeks.

County Highway Superintendent Bernie Kelleher explains that because the frost was very deep this year, the roads have taken a beating. The effects have not been even throughout the county. Ancram Highway Superintendent James MacArthur says that Routes 22 and 82 are in basically good shape in the south county.

While most compounds shrink in volume as they freeze, water increases in volume as it goes from liquid to solid, by as much as 9%. Thus, during freezing conditions, the soil beneath a roadbed will expand, typically from the depth of the soil upward toward the surface, causing road heaving. Upstate New York is not alone in experiencing these conditions. In Arctic permafrost regions, a type of ground heaving over hundreds of years has created structures nearly 200 feet high, known as pingos. Polygonal forms caused by frost heaves have been observed in near-polar regions of Mars.

Back here on Earth, the spring thaw brings new problems. As the ice melts, the water cannot drain out of the soil fast enough, thereby weakening the subgrade beneath the pavement and making the roadbed more vulnerable to damage, especially from heavy vehicles.

Neither the county nor the towns may repair state roads; that’s the exclusive domain of the DOT. In the cold weather, the DOT’s resident crews are limited in what they can do. They patrol and report problems and can sometimes fill holes but only with a cold patch system, because the hot asphalt plants are closed during the winter.

In spite of the widespread road damage, the DOT has only one repaving project planned in Columbia County for 2015, a project that it calls a “preventative maintenance initiative.” The approximately four miles of asphalt and concrete constituting Route 203 from Big Woods Road in Austerlitz to the Taconic Parkway ramps outside Chatham Village will be repaved with asphalt this summer at an estimated cost of $2.1 million, using federal and state funding. No projects in Columbia County are planned for 2016 as yet.

The significant cost of repaving poses a formidable challenge to DOT, which, its spokespeople underscore, has very limited funds available. Many of the state’s roadways need repair. State Dedicated Highway and Bridge Trust Fund resources have been significantly diverted from capital and infrastructure projects to daily repair, snow removal and maintenance.

In early March town and county officials from a number of upstate communities joined the New York State Highway Superintendents Association for two days in Albany, lobbying for $200 million to be added to funding this year and $500 million over the next five years for repaving, bridge repair and other neglected projects. They pointed to the state’s recent $5 billion in settlements with banks as a potential source of the money. More than 100 state legislators have signed on to the request for enhanced resources.

Local highway personnel in Columbia County believe that much of the DOT’s funding and efforts are directed downstate to New York City and its suburbs. In fact, DOT’s system for identifying potential repaving projects may favor more populous areas. Gina DiSarro, the public information officer for Region 8 (which encompasses not only Columbia, but also Dutchess, Putnam, Westchester, Ulster, Orange and Rockland counties) says that, in addition to safety, a number of factors are considered when allocating funds. The factors are traffic volume on the road, the use of the roadway (for example, is it commercial, residential), the condition of the pavement, the type of pavement, cost, the speed of travel on the roadway and the record of complaints about the conditions.

DOT Public Information Officer Carol Breen adds that beyond on-demand safety projects, DOT prioritizes “projects that benefit the overall transportation system, instead of looking at projects individually. A major commuting corridor or key connection through towns and counties would be a greater priority than less traveled roads,” she says.

State policy and practice do not always seem fully aligned. For example, DOT recently added “Centerline Audible Roadway Delineators”–rumble strips–on a number of state roads. Rumble strips have been credited with reducing side-swipe and head-on collisions by 25 to 40% in national research studies. DOT explains that it has been installing rumble strips on rural roads at the same time as the roads are being repaved, as the cost is minimal when the strips are an add-on to a larger project. However, in Columbia County the strips were added to state roads like Routes 22, 203 and 295 without those roads being concurrently repaired.

Local highway personnel also note that measures such as filling potholes, or repaving surfaces at a 1-2 inch depth (as was done several years ago on Route 22 in Hillsdale, Austerlitz and Canaan) are at best stop gaps and will not hold up to traffic. Instead, those sections of highway will require new repairs within a short time. The trench that opened up on Route 22 this winter, described by Superintendent Meyer as “three feet wide and as deep as a 16-ounce coffee cup,” seems to confirm this view.

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