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Road Outrage on the New Frontier

Column by Hal Walter

Rural Life – December 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN I OWNED A 100-year-old farmhouse in booming downtown Wetmore several years ago, one of the biggest problems I had was people speeding past my house.

The house itself sat right on the chipsealed county road and one of the front rooms, a porch which had been glassed in, served as my office. The main street in Wetmore parallels Highway 96, and many people take this back road to the post office or general store. While I was working in my office I would watch while many of these drivers zipped through the clearly marked 15 mph “Children Playing” zone.

And each time I would curse. I didn’t move to a small town to watch people race cars and trucks.

A neighbor from up the road shared my view about the speeders and, like a couple of old men, we would often compare notes about whom we saw speeding, what we should do about it, and why anybody who needed to get anywhere fast would have chosen to live in Wetmore of all places.

Early one morning this neighbor dropped off a fluorescent-orange traffic cone and left it standing right in the middle of the road in front of my house. I was entertained for days as the people who routinely rocketed past now stomped on their brake pedals at the sight of the cone. Some of them actually came to a full stop and looked around for the construction project. Some of them did this several times. From time to time I would reposition the cone just to keep people guessing. One night I heard tires skidding and went out to find the cone down the road a ways with scuff marks. I simply moved it back.

For weeks this worked like a charm. The smarter drivers got the message and started to slow down. The slower-minded fast drivers continued to slow down because they thought there was some major ongoing but invisible road project in front of the Walter home. But then one day the cone simply disappeared.

Soon things were back up to speed though some people got the message and slowed down.

When I sold that house and moved to this little ranch, where I’ve lived for the past 10 years, one of the big attractions was that I didn’t have to deal with speeding drivers on my road. My house is located about four dirt miles from the highway. The route is a main dirt thoroughfare that drops steeply downhill past Bear Basin Ranch, then rolls and curves through open ranchland and one state land trust section before reaching my subdivision. It’s another half mile down a sideroad to my place. Since it’s truly a road to nowhere, few lead-footed drivers venture past my house. However, I did not escape the madness of rural roads.

When I first moved out here, the road between here and the highway wasn’t much of a problem. It would go for long periods with no need for maintenance. Every couple of months or so, when the washboard developed or a wet spring storm caused rutting, the county road crew would come out and fix it.

Then the real growth began in the mid-1990s. A neighboring ranch was subdivided. Traffic increased with new residents and construction vehicles.

TIME AND AGAIN I would round a curve and face down a speeding, fishtailing dump truck or cement truck with a 50-foot rooster tail rising from its rear wheels. Some of my new neighbors were just as rude. If I happened to be on foot, these same vehicles would often pelt me with gravel and flour me with dust. Many of them wouldn’t even bother to slow down.

And of course the road surface quickly went to hell. Now it seems like every other week the county is out with a grader, and in drier periods a water truck. A week later the road is generally trashed again.

At some point, someone realized that some of the roads had been built with tailings from a nearby lead mine. A study ensued, and afterwards, a binder was applied to areas of the road that contained the most lead-laden dust. This helped for a while, but the expensive substance allowed potholes to form, and also proved to be slippery when wet. Soon the county had to rework the roads.

By and by they went back to the same dusty washboards that we had before the lead scare.

There are 357 miles of non-highway roads in Custer County, which is one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation. The majority of these are dirt roads.

Since most Custer County residents do not live on the paved streets of the Westcliffe/ Silver Cliff Megaplex, they must regularly use a dirt road to get to and from their homes. Most builders also use these roads to get to and from the homes they are building.

But as the roads are traveled by more residents who haven’t yet slowed their vehicles down to country pace, and more big construction vehicles in a hurry to get to and from job sites, the amount of money it takes to maintain these roads is stuck in low gear. Currently the county is conducting a study in an attempt to figure out what to do about the problem. Possible solutions include another coating of road binder, such as that used to keep the lead in, or perhaps even chip-sealing some stretches of road.

In an attempt to figure out what exactly is going on, the county is using equipment to record information about traffic on these roads. Data such as number and type of vehicles as well as the speed of travel is recorded for every vehicle that passes. While the details from the study on my road are not yet available, preliminary results indicate that most people are obeying the speed limit, but that most of the damage is being caused by the few people who are speeding. During a study of another dirt road in the county, one driver was clocked at 98 mph. Apparently the powdery dust that is raised by fast-moving vehicles is also the material — called “fines” — that holds the road base together.

And the damage is not limited to the dirt surface. There are several cattle guards across the road to my house. These cattle guards receive severe damage from speeders. One cattle guard had to be replaced, and then not long afterward I saw a welder repairing one of its new rails. When I stopped to ask just how, exactly, a piece of rail engineered to carry railroad locomotives had come to break in half, the welder just said that people drive too fast out here.

He’s right.

Quite often, when I turn off the highway, I am followed by another vehicle traveling my way. I try to drive at a reasonable rate of speed and usually find the driver of the following car riding my tailgate all the way to my turnoff, just waiting for the chance to get around and jump back up to Interstate speed.

AS I TURN OFF at my dead-end road, I note the irony _that the trailing driver is most likely heading to his or her trophy home in the next subdivision, the same subdivision where most of the residents get discounted “agricultural” tax rates on their property because they lease the ground back to the rancher who once owned the land.

In other words, these speeders cause the most road damage but pay the least for its repair and maintenance. It’s yet another case of development not paying its toll. And the sad thing is, when and if the county does finally decide to chipseal the road as the final solution, those of us who have lived here the longest, drive the slowest and pay the highest tax rates will end up paying the most for the road work. And the new chipseal will just allow the fast drivers to go faster.

If you ask me, we would be better off just investing in a few orange traffic cones. It’s infinitely more cost-effective and far more entertaining than rebuilding the road at the expense of those of us who drive sanely.

Hal Walter watches the pickups speed by from his home in the Wet Mountains.