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A Successful Practitioner's Handbook

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Figure 9. Photo. Grader maintenance.

Unpaved roads are an integral and strategic part of the national road network and successfully function for years when properly constructed and maintained. But they don't stand up to traffic without some occasional maintenance; therefore light, regular re-grading (Figure 9) and less frequent but more intensive regravelling and reshaping should all be part of a formally planned and adequately budgeted program. Proper budgeting requires accurate documentation of the extent of the road network, its current condition, a reasonable estimate of its maintenance needs over a long time period, and a thorough understanding of the costs of achieving a range of performance levels as well as the costs of not meeting them.


While those in charge of allocating funds may prefer to hand them out on an annual basis, road department operations require attention to longer-term needs in order to use those funds most efficiently, especially if gravel preservation and reduced maintenance through chemical treatment is being considered. Along with typical line items for construction and maintenance work, multiple-year road maintenance budgets also need to include allocations for training and retaining qualified employees, buying and depreciating equipment, and contracting for supplies of appropriate quality materials. Multiple-year programs that successfully plan and account for these eventualities need to be assembled to justify annual requests and provide greater assurance of continued funding for manpower, machinery and materials expenditures. However, there are no standard approaches to road maintenance budgets being followed by unpaved road managers.


The scan tour found various approaches to justifying chemical treatments on unpaved roads. The most successful were those that used a simple spreadsheet-based management system to clearly demonstrate savings in terms of gravel replacement and road maintenance when compared to not treating the road. Levels of detail varied, with the most comprehensive showing details of, for example, downsizing equipment fleets, redeploying labor to other important functions, and reassigning funds saved on maintenance of treated roads to other roads that require upgrading.

Evaluate and Record the True Costs

Treating roads with an appropriate chemical additive will cost more up front compared to leaving them untreated, but the quantifiable benefits usually justify those extra costs in terms of preserving materials (extending the interval between gravel replacement) and reducing maintenance (extending the interval between grader blading). Other benefits such as reduced environmental impact associated with controlling the loss of fines (dust), and improved safety (Figure 10) and reduced environmental impact are more difficult to quantify economically but important to point out. Accurately tracking all costs in a detailed spreadsheet provides compelling evidence when justifying budgets with individuals or groups who allocate funds (e.g., supervisors, employers, or governing boards/commissioners). Table 2 shows a cost comparison between chemical treatment and routine (untreated) maintenance, prepared by a scan tour host and used in justifying chemical treatment as an appropriate, cost-effective unpaved road management practice.

Figure 10. Photo. Unpaved road accident.

Table 2. Case study cost comparison of treated versus untreated roads.
The Lakes Highway District in Northern Idaho determines all of its costs, resulting in a clear picture of the true cost of road construction and maintenance.
Untreated Treated
  1. Aggregate
    1. Crushed to specification
    2. Reapplication
  2. Average price of haul to roadway
    1. Equipment and supplies (fuel, oil, tires and the truck)
    2. Operator (loaded rate)
  3. Placement (also used for ongoing maintenance)
    1. Motor grader
      1. Prorated hourly rate
      2. Fuel, tires, oil and cutting edges
      3. Operator (loaded rate)
    2. Roller
      1. Prorated hourly rate
      2. Fuel and oil
      3. Operator (loaded rate)
    3. Water truck
      1. Prorated hourly rate
      2. Fuel, oil and water
      3. Operator (loaded rate)
  4. Salary
    1. Supervisor
    2. Crew
    3. Office staff
For a newly treated roadway at a MgCl2 shot rate of
½ gallon/square yard of roadway and a cost of
$92.20/ ton, the treatment to the roadway was

For a retreated roadway, ¼ gallon was used, which cut the cost in half to $1,750/mile.

Additional costs included preparation/ maintenance of the roadway with a grader, water truck and roller (twice per year at a cost of $480/mile).

First year costs:
Spring maintenance: $480/mile MgCl2: $3,500/mile
Fall maintenance: $480/mile Total Cost = $4,460/ year

Second year costs:
Spring grading: $480/year Rejuvenation at ¼ gallon MgCl2: $1,750 Fall grading: $480/year
Total cost = $2,710/year
Average cost per untreated mile = $8,980/year*
*This roadway required blading 18 times per year to maintain an acceptably safe and comfortable ride. Additional pro-rated costs per year are added for the replacement of gravel (item 1)
Average cost per treated mile**:
1st year = $4,460/year 2nd year = $2,710/year
** Does not factor in replacement gravel, which will be needed, but at much lower frequency than untreated roads

Completely and accurately measuring the true costs of untreated versus treated roads and using consistent criteria to compare results from different chemical treatments and maintenance practices enables confident decision-making about the most economical choice for a particular situation. It also helps determine the better option when upgrading a particular road section to an asphalt or concrete surface.

Prepare a Defensible Budget

Preparing a detailed budget with defendable entries is a key component of the process. Appendix C provides a complete and detailed example of one county engineer's annual funding request to county officials. Road managers can use this spreadsheet with their own numbers to justify a chemical treatment program. In doing this, recognize that in most instances, the true
benefits of most chemical treatment programs will only be realized after three or four years when the initial costs are recouped through savings in gravel replacement, routine maintenance, and lower application rejuvenations.

Demonstrate Success - Small Projects First

A small demonstration on a selected representative link in the road network is often helpful to prove local effectiveness of chemical treatments to both the road user and to those with the purse strings (Figure 11). Documenting and demonstrating the success by comparing a treated section of road against an untreated control section can provide the justification needed to fund the treatment of more roads in the following year. These smaller projects also pose less risk to the road manager than a larger commitment to a locally unproven technique that might produce unsuccessful results. But each county, forest, mine or federal land does not need to do its own research on dust control. There is a wealth of information and experience available to guide road managers through the process. Techniques can be replicated and adapted elsewhere as long as the process is documented and available.

Figure 11. Photo. Dust control experiment.

Sell the Process to Managers / Supervisors / Employers / Governing Boards / Commissioners

For road managers, a credible relationship with the people who approve annual budgets and allocate funds can establish the level of mutual trust and respect that is critical to budgetary consensus. These individuals, especially if they are public servants, want reasonable and rational justifications for each disbursement. For instance, a request for greater immediate operating funds may be better received if it can be shown that it will result in reduced future funding needs. Also, demonstrating that past funding levels were used to do more than simply maintain a status quo and actually improved the quality of the road network will be seen as evidence of good stewardship and can encourage the approval of funding requests. Road managers who understand organizational objectives and who can clearly communicate their own specific needs in meeting those objectives will prevail as effective program managers. Maintaining some form of gravel road management system to keep track of costs and performance, and sharing experiences with other unpaved road managers in neighboring jurisdictions (that is, not "reinventing the wheel"), are also important parts of this process.

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