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Rocky road work chips away at some Washington County drivers' patience

Mixture less expensive than asphalt, but leaves pebbles behind

Mixture less expensive than asphalt, but leaves pebbles behind

May 22, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- For two weeks, the top of Terry Biser's driveway has been filled with pebbles.

He sweeps it occasionally, but the rocks keep rolling off Leiters Mill Road onto his property, the result of a new road repair method that is infuriating some residents.

"It's impossible," Biser said. "It's just a mess."

Two weeks ago, the county repaired Leiters Mill Road using what is called chip seal instead of traditional asphalt.

Chip seal, a mixture of asphalt emulsion and stone, is less expensive than asphalt, which has gotten costlier with rising oil prices.

By using chip seal, Washington County has been able to treat miles of roads that otherwise would have been left for another year.

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But the downside to chip seal is what it leaves behind - a layer of stones that stays on the road for weeks after the repairs have been finished.

"We've gotten a lot of calls," said Robert J. Slocum, acting deputy director of Washington County Public Works. "Mostly, the complaints are about the loose stone."

Slocum and other county workers say chip seal is a good second option to asphalt that works to even out road surfaces and fill potholes.

By July, the county will have spent about $1 million to repair 45 miles of roads with chip seal.

With asphalt, which costs more and requires more preparation, the county can repair about one-quarter of the road miles it can with chip seal, Slocum said.

Using only asphalt, under the current road work budget, the county only would be able to repair a road once every 40 years, Slocum said.

"(Chip seal) gives us another tool in our toolbox," Slocum said.

In response to complaints about the loose stone, the county has started vacuuming instead of sweeping the rocks from the roads.

Workers also are testing a higher-grade chip seal in some places that contains smaller stones and produces less loose rock.

Still, Slocum agreed that chip seal never will be as smooth as asphalt.

"Chip seal is the complete reverse of asphalt," Slocum said. "You get the worst first. With asphalt, the first day is the best day."

Under its pavement maintenance program, the county spends $5 million per year on repairs to its 850-mile road network.

In fiscal 2009, which begins July 1, the county will spend $1 million on asphalt, $1.5 on patching, about $500,000 on chip seal and the rest on miscellaneous expenses such as relocating utilities, inspections, testing and traffic maintenance.

Slocum said roads that are repaired with chip seal still can be covered later with asphalt if development occurs on the road or the budget increases.

However, he said it is not necessary to cover a chip-sealed road with asphalt, and noted that many counties in Maryland have turned to chip seal as a permanent alternative for some rural roads.

Phil Muritz, who lives on the recently chip-sealed Unger Road, said that might not be such a bad thing.

Muritz said his son, who rides a motorcycle, hates the chip seal, but Muritz, who grew up on a chip-sealed road in Smithsburg, doesn't mind it.

"It's not a nice, smooth ride like asphalt, but I think it helps keep the speed down back here," Muritz said.

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The issue: Some residents are unhappy with a new road repair method being used by the county that leaves a layer of gravel on roadways.

What's new: The county last year began using the chip-seal method, which mixes asphalt emulsion and stone, as a cheaper alternative to traditional asphalt, which has gotten more expensive with rising oil prices. But many residents have complained about the loose stones being kicked into their yards by the process.

What's next: The county is working to reduce the amount of loose stones left over during chip sealing by vacuuming the rocks instead of sweeping them and by testing a higher-grade chip seal that uses smaller stones.

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