What Paul Krugman, Rachel Maddow, and the press corps don't understand about gravel roads.

Media criticism.
Aug. 16 2010 6:24 PM

Paved and Confused

What Krugman, Maddow, and the press corps don't understand about gravel roads.

(Continued from Page 1)

Both the Journal and BusinessWeek reported that the road's owners—the citizens of Stutsman County, N.D.—don't want to pay to keep the road paved. They've rejected at least four tax measures in the past 22 years that would have helped preserve their section of Highway 10. In June, they voted down a fifth measure, the Journal reported. According to the Associated Press, the measure was approved by rural precincts but not by city precincts.

If Stutsman County voters are content to surrender their sparsely driven roads to gravel, why are people like Krugman and Maddow making such a fuss? There's a preservationist instinct operating here that holds that anything that has been must always be. Also, from their media perches far away, Krugman and Maddow are interpreting the loss of a few miles of Stutsman County road as a sign of the collapse of civilization when all that's happening is that the country is performing triage on its roads, using its road budget to give the most-used streets the best care.

A strong case can be made that North Dakota and maybe a few other states are now paying the price—or not paying the price, as it were—for having overbuilt their road systems. The most recent federal numbers show that North Dakota has 86,842 miles of road, compared with next-door-neighbor Montana's 73,202 miles. Montana is similarly rural, but it's twice the size of North Dakota and has a 50 percent greater population. If Montana can function with 13,000 fewer miles of road than North Dakota, then North Dakota can unpave or abandon several thousands of miles of road without disintegrating. Montanans even drive more rural miles (PDF) than North Dakotans. South Dakota, which has about 25 percent more people than North Dakota, gets by with just 83,744 miles of road!

Another argument for deleting some of North Dakota's paved roads: Its population has been flat since 1920, and its rural areas are steadily depopulating. This means that its rural roads are used less and less every year. How many of its seldom-used paved roadways should have never been paved in the first place? I have anecdotal evidence of the state's roadway profligacy: When I drove its vast network of paved back roads during my summer vacation, it was an event to see another car more often than once an hour. When driving gravel roads, I never saw another car.

Besides, what's wrong with a gravel or dirt road? Sure, they kick up dust in the summer and get muddy in the spring and fall. But some folks find romance in the unpaved. Up in Vermont, locals have been known to fight like wild dogs at the suggestion that dirt and gravel lanes get the asphalt treatment, as this 1996 New York Timesarticle shows.

"Paved roads are for cars, not people," Naomi Flanders told the Times. "Dirt roads are for people."

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Obviously more than 223 miles of road have been unpaved in the past two years, but my point stands. If you've got access to better numbers, please send them to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Monitor my Twitter for my compensation demands. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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