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Rocky road cheaper, but leaves bad taste

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Over the past two weeks, many paved thoroughfares in Jackson County have been temporarily turned into gravel roads, annoying residents and vehicle service departments alike.

“We get a lot of chipped front bumpers,” said Joshua Saltmarsh at the Lithia Honda service department. “What we see a lot of is as the gravel gets kicked up, it gets into the brake rotors and causes abnormal squealing.”

Cracked windshields and dinged fog lights have also become more commonplace, he said.

Jackson County road crews are repairing 89.1 miles of roads in both the rural parts of the county and the cities of Medford, Ashland and Eagle Point . They’re using a process known as chip sealing, which requires spreading a thin layer of asphalt and then a layer of loose rock, first rolled into place then further compressed by vehicles.

“Chip sealing is not the most driver-friendly road treatment you can do,” said John Vial, director of Jackson County Roads and Parks.

But it’s a far cheaper alternative than the more familiar type repaving. Chip sealing costs $26,000 a mile versus $250,000 a mile for a new asphalt overlay, he said, noting it’s a time-tested technique.

“The bottom line is you have to maintain your roads, you have to maintain your pavement,” Vial said.

He likens chip sealing to painting a house, or taking care of maintenance before you have to spend even more for repairs.

“Do you wait until the paint is completely removed from a house before painting it?” he said.

Some of the negative consequences of chip sealing include dust and the potential for flying rocks, Vial said.

The chip sealing this summer will cost about $2.3 million, he said, with additional work necessary to fix cracks or to repair damaged sections of road.

Crews have repaired parts of roads that have become distressed to make sure there is a good foundation. Cracks in the road are patched, liquified asphalt is applied to the road, then 3/8-inch of gravel is rolled out. Traffic then compresses the rocks into the asphalt for at least a week — and that’s the period of time that the complaints ramp up.

Vial said that after a few days, most of the rocks have embedded into the road.

After a week, the remaining rocks are swept up and a fog seal is applied that turns the road back to a black color. That’s followed by striping.

Chip sealing is fairly fast, covering about 300 feet a minute, compared to about 70 feet a minute with typical paving, and so causes fewer traffic delays.

Vial said that because the rock is so lightweight, it should cause little damage as long as drivers don’t exceed 30 mph.

“One hundred percent of damage is related to speed,” he said.

Throughout the county, some 75 roads are being chip sealed, with the longest stretch being 5.4 miles on Pioneer Road, west of Phoenix.

The chip sealing work this year has focused on the south county, Vial said.

Fog sealing should be done by mid-September, and striping will follow.

On Thursday, crews applied chip seal on Coker Butte Road, next to Lithia Honda, and on Lear Way, forcing salesmen to pick alternative routes for test rides of new vehicles, Saltmarsh said.

Otherwise, customers would be faced with making “unnecessary” repairs on newer cars, he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him @reporterdm.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneVehicles travel over loose rocks on Coker Butte Road Friday west of Crater Lake Highway near Lithia Honda in Medford.