Anyone who has driven any distance over the last couple of weeks has likely noticed that many of the roads are choppy and make smaller vehicles bounce up and down as if they’re driving on a rumble strip.
Wright County Highway Engineer Virgil Hawkins explained that this isn’t a Wright County problem alone. It’s happening everywhere.
“It’s bad,” Hawkins said. “It’s bad everywhere. I’ve had to do a lot of driving this week and I’ve had a chance to see a lot of different roads. In my travels this past week in Minnesota I’ve experienced choppy and rough riding highways on other county highway systems. It’s a problem that happens every year, but this year is worse.”
So why is it worse this year? It’s due in large part to the record-setting amount of rain Minnesota got in 2019, especially in the fall.
“This year has been worse than most prior years because it’s a unique situation we’re dealing with,” Hawkins said. “The moisture in the soil is what is causing the problem. Last year, we had record rainfall. At the end of the fall heading into winter, the soil in the road beds was completely saturated because of all the rain. The last couple of weeks, the moisture in the soil freezes at night and starts to thaw during the day as the temperatures go above and below freezing. When it freezes, the water expands and the underlying soil in these old roads makes it so it’s not uniform. The clay and the sand and the mixture of different soils, when they expand and move, they heave at different rates. That’s where you get the choppiness.”
The roads tend to self-correct when the frost comes out of the ground and smooth back out – “a month or so from now, you won’t notice a thing,” Hawkins said.
Almost 300 miles of the 512 miles on the county’s road system haven’t been reconstructed since they were initially built – most of them in the 1940s and 1950s. In those days, there wasn’t the level of engineering that goes into current road construction. Soil was excavated to form makeshift ditches and thrown in the between the ditches to form the roadbed, resulting in non-uniform soils of all different types underneath the pavement. Hawkins said the Highway Department has done mill-and-overlays on those roads over the years, but has done nothing to repair the underlying problem of an uneven road bed, creating problems even on new overlay projects. Repairing the underlying problem would involve reconstruction of the roadbed at a cost of about $1.5 million per mile, and there is not funding available to do this.
It’s something Hawkins said is an annual problem, it’s just that this year it is more pronounced because of the moisture in the ground from an unprecedented amount of rainfall and a long stretch of temperatures hovering above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. Unfortunately, Hawkins said, it’s an annual springtime problem that won’t be going away any time soon, but likely not the extent we’re seeing this year.
“Some of these roads that are choppy, we just put a new surface on them two or three years ago,” Hawkins said. “We perpetually get calls this time of year with people telling us we should get our money back for the poor job done on the road. We agree that the road might have a poor ride, but it is only temporary, the ride will smooth out when the frost is completely out of the ground. The roads like this only had a new pavement surface put on them that cost about $150,000 per mile versus the cost to reconstruct the roadbed which would eliminate the choppy ride in the Spring, that would cost about $1.5 million per mile. This is what it looks like when you don’t have adequate funding for transportation. Until there’s a time in Minnesota that there is sustainable transportation funding that would allow us to reconstruct the roadbed to 10 ton standards on these roads, this is how it will look, and ride, at this time of year.”