By Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team
VIAN, Oklahoma -- For many Oklahomans, the economic downturn has been a figurative rough ride -- they've lost jobs, lost homes, or maybe both. Here in the small community in rural Sequoyah County, the 'ride' has now literally become rough, as local roads suffer the consequences of this economy's diminished revenues.
Oklahoma is certainly not known for having the smoothest roads -- harsh weather and heavy commercial truck traffic help see to that -- and now county commissioners who routinely struggle to find the dollars needed to keep pace with needed fixes, face an even greater challenge.
The result is, in increasing numbers, cash-strapped county governments are turning to gravel as a solution, if only a temporary one.
Residents of Sequoyah County accept gravel roads as a fact of life in rural eastern Oklahoma, but they're not as accepting when it's a road that, up until a few months ago, was paved.
"It's terrible, it really is, that you gotta drive over something like this, but if you don't have the money to fix it, well, you gotta go with what you can," said James Roberts, Sequoyah County resident.
Sequoyah County Commissioner Steve Carter said the gravel is a temporary solution. Carter said large sections of paved roadway throughout his district, including the spot referenced by Roberts , were undone by a vicious cycle of rain, freezing and thawing last winter, and he said the county just can't afford to do asphalt overlays right now.
"When somebody's been driving on a blacktop road all their life, they don't want to go back to gravel roads, and that's understandable, but for us right now, we have to fix it so they can drive at all," Carter said.
Delbert Spears lives next to one of the newly graveled roads. He said he doesn't care for the dust that the gravel generates but said the road definitely is more drivable now.
"It's better now than it was because there was big old potholes, you'd drop plum down in them," Spears said.
Still, gravel present its own safety risk.
Last week near Oologah in Rogers County, a driver lost control and flipped his vehicle on a road that had been asphalt, but which has also been temporarily returned to gravel. State troopers blame high speed, not gravel, for the wreck but acknowledged gravel increases the danger posed by speeding.
In Oklahoma County, truck traffic to and from oil and gas well sites has been responsible for damage to many rural county roads.
District 2 commissioner, Ray Vaughn, said the damage on one of his roads stretched almost half of a mile in both lanes.
"Potholes are one thing, but patching a road like this...you can't really patch that," Vaughn said.
Vaughn said with his road budget down $600,000 from last year, gravel is the best he can do right now on that road.
"That's the way it is," Vaughn said. "You do what you have to do when times are tough."
Funding for county roads varies, to some extent, from county to county, but the majority comes from state fuel tax, gross production tax and motor vehicle fees. Combined, those revenue streams declined 10 percent from FY 2009 to FY 2010, and officials are only expecting the decline to continue.
Some commissioners argue that because their roads were damaged in a disaster-declared winter storm, they should be able to get money from FEMA to help them properly repair these roads. So far, their arguments are falling on deaf ears, although state emergency management officials are intervening on their behalf.
Commissioner Carter said the outlook isn't very good right now, not just for him, and not just for Oklahoma, but across the country.
"Everybody's in about the same boat, ya know?" Carter said solemnly. "The economy's got everybody hamstrung right now, and it's just not a good situation to be in."
If you drive on a road that's been patched with gravel, send us your pictures at firstname.lastname@example.org