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Slipping and sliding on country roads

Postal carrier Rick Hahn said that when some of the roads in the Calhan area are wet, it takes everything he can do to keep the car on the road, even with an all-wheel drive vehicle.Hahn isn’t the only one complaining about the condition of gravel roads around Calhan and Peyton. In October, both school districts cancelled classes for what they termed a “mud day.”Calhan School District Superintendent Dave Freeman received a phone call Oct. 10 from Nancy Lutz, D 49 transportation director, informing him the roads were so slick that she had a difficult time getting to the school in her 4-wheel drive vehicle.”Oh, my gosh, together Nancy and I took a small school bus down Fairplay Road and the road was so slippery that it took us over 20 minutes to go one mile,” Freeman said. “The only way to avoid ending up in the ditch was to drive on the center crown in the road.”Bob Robbins, head of Peyton School transportation department, said he first noticed the problem two weeks prior to the cancellation, after one of the buses became mired in mud on Pinion Park Road. “It was like the county was using something different on the roads out here, and the moisture now saturates the road bed making it a muddy mess,” Robbins said. “Sometimes, the buses slide off the roads, and in other instances they sink about six inches into the road bed. I’ve been in transportation out here for 21 years and have never experienced anything like it.”Another Calhan mail carrier concurred. “I’ve lived here my entire life, I went to Calhan schools, and school was never cancelled because of muddy roads,” said Bonnie Blasingame.Peyton Superintendent Tim Kistler said the unsafe road conditions may have been created by the use of magnesium chloride. He said he talked to a man who used to maintain the gravel streets and was informed the county should be applying the compound to the roads when wet, but instead it was sprayed on dry roads, and the subsequent moisture created the unsafe conditions.Chuck McCulloh disagrees with Kistler. McCulloh, highway manager for the El Paso County Transportation Department, said the conditions experienced in October have nothing to do with spraying magnesium chloride on the roads. The compound is often sprayed on paved streets as a de-icer, but he said, “We use mag chloride on gravel roads in the county in order to keep the dust levels down.”McCulloh said what happened in Peyton and Calhan was the result of uncompleted road work. The county had graded a number of roads in eastern El Paso County with gravel from the Sokol pit, located on Soapweed Road in Calhan. “The gravel from the Sokol pit has a high concentration of clay, and, after applying it to the road bed, the county then adds other more coarse gravel from other pits or adds a layer of asphalt millings,” he said. “Some roads that we had been working on, such as Reata, Pinion Park and Murphy Road weren’t finished yet.” Before adding the final layer of gravel, the county had experienced a weekend of soaking rain that turned some gravel roads into a quagmire. “Once the roads were dry, the county went out and completed their work, so hopefully we have taken care of the problem,” McCullough said.An Oct. 7, 2002 synopsis from El Paso County states “although marginal,” the material from the Sokol pit “still meets the county specifications for road surface material.”Native material from the Sokol pit is used because it allows the county to save money by not having to haul gravel long distances from other pits, McCulloh said. Plus, he said, if the county applies only coarse gravel without any clay content, “It quickly washes off the sides of the roads. The Sokol material acts as a binding agent.”McCulloh added that it is difficult and costly to maintain the 1,100 miles of gravel roads in the county, especially since the county only has 25 road graders to do the work. “Of course, we have to do upkeep on the most heavily traveled roads first,” he said.Superintendents from both school districts said they want to avoid putting their students at risk should the situation occur again. They also want to limit the number of days classes may have to be cancelled if the problem is not fully resolved.Freeman has developed an “alternate transportation plan.” If there are any additional “mud days,” school officials will notify the media, and Calhan parents will need to drive their children to the closest paved road where the school bus will pick them up. If it rains during the school day, students will be dropped off at those same locations.”This is a safety issue,” Kistler said. He was working on a plan for Peyton schools at the time of this interview. “Parents may have to pick their children up at school should it rain during the day because it will be fruitless to try and get students home, and there is no point in our taking a chance of having our school buses slide off the road,” he said.Peyton and Calhan residents still have questions about the condition of their gravel roads. Kistler said he gave the county transportation phone number to many parents.Hahn also questioned the county’s explanation. “I drive on those roads six days a week because of my mail route and have never personally seen any additional materials added to the roads once the first layer of gravel has been applied,” he said, acknowledging that not all the gravel roads were affected by the moisture. “Highway 110 and Spree Road have a much better road bed, and I have never had any problems driving those roads when they are wet,” Hahn said.”Why is the county wasting money putting down gravel that they know is inferior, especially if they have to come out and repair those roads after a heavy rain?” He said the county should consider the safety issue. “After all, not only do school buses drive on those roads, there are also a lot of inexperienced high school kids driving to school.” Should residents have further problems with slick gravel roads, they can reach the El Paso County Transportation Department at 520-6460.

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