Council hears new Marfa roads assessment: From bandaids to big ideas

MARFA — The journey to good roads in Marfa is long and bumpy, but last week, city council took new steps toward a comprehensive road improvement plan. KSA Engineers presented a 2020 roadway assessment and 10-year plan to the council, highlighting some of the urgent needs and long term strategies to get Marfa roads back on their feet.

Abiel Carrillo, a senior project manager at KSA Engineers, gave the presentation, saying the plan would “review the condition of the city’s roadway network as an update to the 2017 comprehensive plan assessment.” After covering those aspects, Carrillo and KSA hoped to provide a 10-year maintenance plan approach that would help Marfa get ahead of deteriorating roads, maintaining them rather than having to spend even more money revitalizing or entirely replacing roadways.

The presentation provided data based on a “Pavement Condition Index Method,” which categorizes the quality of the road. In fact, different cracks in Marfa roads indicate different issues. Alligator cracking, which exists a lot in Marfa and is characterized by its alligator skin appearance, is an indication of a base failure.

In other places, grass and vegetation are growing through the roadways, a sign that potholes and cracks are allowing water into the roads under-layers, creating road rot.

“Preventative measures are the treatments for maintaining good roads as good roads,” Carrillo said, pointing to Marfa’s best road, East El Paso near the Department of State Health Services office and the Hotel Saint George. Maintaining the newer road going forward will be less expensive than allowing it to degrade and then doing a larger repair later.

According to Carrillo the maintenance strategy is to try and catch roads before they enter the next category. “One of your worst conditioned roads is Highland, north of the county courthouse. It just has that alligator cracking which is a clear sign of base failure,” he said.

The plan of attack from KSA would be a five-point strategy, beginning with phasing out the overuse of preventative measures on failed roads. “A common way to do roads is to hire your local contractors to perform chip seals or seal coats on roads that maybe don’t support that chip seal anymore. That chip seal doesn’t last a long time,” one slide read.

In the first year of the plan, those measures aren’t entirely eliminated — they’ll still be used to put a bandaid on especially dire spots — “but we start rethinking of having reconstruction that can be maintained in a good condition more effectively,” according to Carrillo.

“It is a bandaid, and bandaids have their place in the world. If you have a road that’s just falling apart and all you can do is a chip seal and that will get you by for a year or two to avoid accidents or a really bad pothole, then I recommend you chip seal,” he explained. “But as you do that, my hope is that you follow the strategy that gets you farther and farther away from that over time.”

After bailing out the worst roads, the second step is to allocate road funding in key places called “essential links.” These are roadways that see high usage. Since the city cannot get to every single road that’s “poor” in the first few years, the city can at least address roads used to access main highways, the arteries of the town.

The third step is to strategize to create more sustainable designs. Marfa roadways are extremely wide, the company observed, with Carrillo calling it a “sea of asphalt.” The cost to pave could be greatly reduced, even if surfaces were reduced by 15 percent. Looking at where roads flood, that water could be drained properly, in order to put water into the ground and naturally water local plants more effectively.

The city’s next challenge would be to “diligently maintain” the roads the city chooses to renew. The presenter said, “Instead of doing 15 seal coat blocks, maybe focus on five reconstructions.” As those roads are kept at a maintained level rather than degrading, “Over time your average roadway quality of the entire city will start to rise and your preventative maintenance strategy keeps expanding.”

The final step was to aggressively pursue funding “for transformative projects in line with strategies 1 through 4.”

Carrillo noted that it can be tough to find funding for maintenance activity, but funding can be available for new projects like improving pedestrian connections or adding bike routes to improve economic activity or increase the value of some roads as touristy roads. It’s those kinds of creative solutions that help fund the maintenance of roads, and make travel through the city more effective for all types of residents and visitors.