ELBA — When the Minnesota Department of Transportation decided to kick it old school, turning four miles of paved road into a gravel surface along a short stretch of Minnesota Highway 74, not everyone was thrilled with the throwback look.
"I don’t know why they decided to rip this out," said Winona County Commissioner Steve Jacob, whose district encompasses the section of Highway 74 that was milled and then covered with gravel.
Jacob isn't alone. He and other grassroots grumblers have collected more than 700 signatures from area residents asking MnDOT to bring back the pavement.
The 7-mile stretch of Highway 74 from Winona County Road 30 north to Wabasha County Road 26 near Weaver has long been a gravel road – Minnesota's only stretch of state highway that was not paved – but a 4-mile section from County Road 30 south to Elba has been paved for the past 20 years.
Well, sort of.
Paved vs. unpaved
The 4-mile section was not concrete or even blacktop. Instead, the road was improved as a double Otta seal, what MnDOT District 6 spokesman Mike Dougherty described as an emulsion that bonds with the gravel to create a semi-paved surface that functions like pavement.
That stretch was improved as a double Otta seal road 20 years ago, but potholes and cracks had developed, getting worse during the past five years. Dougherty said patching the road again didn't make sense, so MnDOT milled up the road and spread loose gravel, matching the surface north of County Road 30.
Both sections of road are prone to spring floods, weakening the road base.
"They couldn’t fix it, so they reverted to gravel or rock for the time being," Dougherty said. "There just wasn’t any budget available right at this point other than having a crew mill it up and put rock down. We can look at things longer term and see what’s available."
Jacob said not only does he disagree with that decision to take away the road improvement that has been in place for decades, he isn't happy with how MnDOT went about making its decision and letting the public know about it.
"They came to our meeting (Aug. 10) and less than one week later they were done ripping that surface out," Jacob said.
No public hearings were held, and the general public was not notified, although Dougherty said property owners along the road had been approached earlier this summer to let them know of the change.
"If you’re going to take it from an improved surface to crushed rock, you’d hold public hearings," Jacob said. "That’s what we’d do in Winona County."
Elba Mayor Jay Mollert said he'd received absolutely no notice from MnDOT about the change.
"I heard about it second-hand, just before they started the work," he said. "I knew the road was in bad shape, and I was hoping they’d fix it. But they made it worse."
Paying the toll
Jacob added the idea that MnDOT just didn't budget either for repairs or resurfacing is astounding. As a member of the Winona County roads committee, he said resurfacing with the double Otta seal method would actually save money in the long run, and MnDOT was just wasting money with the gravel.
Each mile of double Otta sealing costs less than $100,000, Jacob said. Meanwhile, gravel roads cost about $10,000 a year to maintain. Since the improved road had lasted 20 years – Jacob admits the last five of those years, the road needed yearly maintenance – resurfacing it was the better cost option. He's already reached out to state Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, and MnDOT to address the situation.
Dougherty said there's more at play than just dollars, since maintenance requires equipment and personnel each year.
Though the same can be said of maintaining gravel roads that require gravel laying and periodic grading.
For Jacob, there are several reasons to keep the road paved. He said while the northern section that has long been gravel gets about 75 vehicles a day, the section from Elba to County Road 30 gets 500 cars a day – Dougherty said MnDOT's count is 400 vehicles a day on that 4-mile section – it represents a pathway to cross from one part of the county to another, it provides a road for farm vehicles, and there's increased safety on improved road vs. gravel.
Mollert agrees with Jacob and has even more reasons to keep the road paved.
In addition to the financial issues, Mollert said that as a motorcyclist, he feels less safe on one of the few paths out of town, especially in a year when Highway 74 is closed at Whitewater State Park for culvert replacements.
"It’s an awful poor way of doing business for the state of Minnesota, in my opinion," the mayor said.