Mud season: It's bad out there
BRATTLEBORO -- Highway Superintendent Hannah O'Connell knew this was coming.
The extremely cold winter created a deep frost this year and O'Connell knew that once the ground started thawing out in the spring it was going to cause major headaches on the town's gravel roads.
But she admits that even long-time employees of Brattleboro's Department of Public Works are saying this could be one of the worst mud seasons ever.
"We've been working every day, and they're getting better than they were," O'Connell said. "But it's still pretty bad out there on some roads."
As of late Tuesday Gibson Road was closed and traveling on Meadowbrook Road, Bonnyvale Road, and Pleasant Valley Road was rough.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Vermont had its coldest March on record, with the average temperature 8.9 degrees below average.
And across the country March was the coldest on record since 2002.
The average national temperature was 40.5 degrees, 10 below the 20th century average for the month.
O'Connell said the deep frost takes a long time to thaw and as the surface temperature rises the gravel roads turn to mush, which is what is happening across Brattleboro.
She said frost levels went down about four feet in the coldest spots. A deep snow pack can sometimes insulate the ground and keep the frost level from getting too deep, but this year the cold weather in March came when there was little snow on the ground in southeastern Vermont.
O'Connell said it was difficult to say what the heavy rains predicted for late Tuesday would do to the roads.
Sometimes rain can improve road surfaces and sometimes, she said, rain can create a thick, soupy mess on the dirt roads.
"It is difficult to predict what will happen," she said. "Sometimes rain can help the situation. Sometimes it can make the roads a bigger mess than they already are. We're hoping for the best."
Department of Public Works Director Steve Barrett said the mud season falls right on the heels of a very tough winter, which has already caused his highway winter maintenance budget to go over budget by more than $100,000,
Barrett planned on spending about $350,000 on salt, fuel, maintenance and other expenses to take care of the snow and ice. Over the past few weeks he said the town has spent about $20,000 on gravel to try to keep the roads open.
"This winter has been quite harsh," Barrett said. "My budget has certainly been compromised somewhat."
But as hard as the town tries, and as much money as it spends, sometimes Mother Nature wins.
The town prohibited trash trucks from going down the worst roads for two weeks, and Barrett said during the worst conditions he can't even send his dump trucks out there because they do more damage than good.
"There are spots out there, where if you don't have a serious four-wheel drive truck, you're just going to get buried," Barrett said. "These are not pleasure-vehicle conditions out there."
The town issues a road report every day on its website to let emergency responders, delivery vehicles and residents know about the most up-to-date conditions.
When the roads get really bad Barrett said the best thing to do is to avoid any travel, and to at least limit the trips, especially with heavy vehicles.
"It's been challenging," he said. "It's been a tough year. We've spent a lot of money and a lot of time to try to keep the roads open. I've seen a lot of tough mud seasons and everyone agrees this is right up there."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.
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