Help me understand the logic of the roads in the desert southwest
May 13, 2021 6:56 AM   Subscribe

I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the southwest a few times and I’ve always been struck by how there’s been miles and miles of lonely but relatively well-maintained tarmac. The roads are not in horrible shape, it looks like there’s been an effort to patch them in places, but the traffic along them is so sparse that it’s been ok to bicycle for hours on them in some areas. Why do they exist? I’m lost on how any of these roads make any economic sense.

I’m most familiar with the densely populated Northeast, and roads there make sense to me: lay down 10 miles of asphalt and people can go to work, to the store, to church, to school, etc.

As you go out from the cities, I can still understand the roads: They connect small towns, and there are signs of human activity alongside them — power lines, gas stations.

Even in rural areas, I can see how they’re presumably used to allow farmers access to arteries so they can transport products. From the road, I can see fields for crops or grazing and there’s usually see a silo or barn on the horizon.

But the roads in the desert Southwest (I'm thinking mainly of southern Utah and Nevada) make no sense to me. The emptiness is complete: service stations and small towns are further apart, and the land alongside the roads are barren, the main purpose they serve appear to get to recreation areas.

Who’s paying for these roads? Are the federal government and local municipalities spending that much money to allow a relatively few access to recreation? I imagine these roads must be expensive to build, to haul asphalt miles into nowhere and do road work.

I understand you’ve got to get people from place to place but if that were that case, I’d expect these roads to be a lot more busy as people were shunted on to arteries.

I understand there are ranches out here, despite the barren desert terrain, because I occasionally come across cattle grids on the road. But the surrounding terrain is basically sand and scrub — do cattle have a reason to wander out here?

And if these lonely roads did exist for the purpose of commerce, to get cattle from these far off and unseen farms to the main arteries to get them to the cities, are the ranchers paying for these roads?

Are local or federal government subsidizing support for this type of commerce?

In other parts of the country, roads of these sorts, from ranches and farms, are in a lot worse shape. They can be dirt roads, or all beat up.

Do the weather conditions in the desert southwest make these roads cheaper than they appear? All sun and little seismic activity means there’s less erosion and need for maintenance?

I’m kind of mystified as to why these roads exist.
posted by Roy Batty to Travel & Transportation around Utah (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I read once that the U.S. highway system was created on a secondary level (or maybe primary?) to serve as military plane landing strips. Not sure if that's accurate but I can see how the military would envision roads everywhere as a resource to transport vehicles, supplies, and soldiers, long distance or locally.
posted by happy_cat at 7:11 AM on May 13, 2021

Your cost intuition is off.

Much road costs are driven (no pun intended) by usage not mileage. The less traffic, especially the less heavy truck traffic, the less often they have to be repaved and replaced.

Much road costs are driven by weather and climate - the impact on asphalt and concrete and underlying roadbed of freeze/frost and the effect of rain and snow (and snow removal). Compared to the north and northeast there is far less (or no) freeze/thaw and snow removal, and far less rain.

That said, rural located industries really need roads even if they don’t need them often, and road spending is everywhere a very juicy political plum, and legislators and tribal councils in the Southwest aren’t going to be immune from lobbying, so you could see spending disproportionate to needs.
posted by MattD at 7:17 AM on May 13, 2021 [13 favorites]

For an authoritative take, see the Federal Highway Administration's info on Benefit-Cost Analysis. It's not specific to the the southwest but as described above, many aspects of that environment, terrain, and usage lead to lower costs per mile than other parts of the country.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:21 AM on May 13, 2021 [4 favorites]

Some of the answers above are kind of circular: the roads are good because they aren't used much - then why were they built to the standards they are?

The answer is the majority of federal funding for counties goes to roads, and therefore the state roads get like 10X the amount of investment that the ones in town or for things like remediation of old buildings get. In other words, you are correct they are hugely federally subsidized and as good as roads in populated areas, when gravel or sand roads would be just as good at the current traffic levels.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:48 AM on May 13, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Something I know about! I grew up in rural Utah and I think I have some answers for you. You've gotten yourself to a kind-of right answer, but there are some other things you may want to also consider.

First, anywhere that gets snow (all of Utah gets snow at some point or another) will have a really rough time with dirt roads if they aren't seasonal - say something in a recreation area. Commercial or large trucks + dirt road + snow/rain typically equals a road that quickly become rutted out and undrivable. Accordingly, it's often cheaper to pave and maintain a small two lane road than constantly regrade it and fix parts that are washed out, rutted out, etc. Road maintenance on those types of roads is typically pretty minimal - they go out once every couple years and seal cracks and fill potholes but otherwise not much happens. Since they are low traffic roads, they aren't experiencing the wear and tear something like a freeway or highway sees. As far as I know, most of these are county or state roads and that is who does the maintenance.

So why do all these roads exist? I'm going to disregard the ones that lead from city to city as that reason is obvious. The simple answer for those more "road to nowhere" scenarios is that for some reason, at some time in the past, someone needed a road to that location. Take a look at 40.128062897005876, -109.14429149524771. This is a barren out in the middle of nowhere section of Eastern Utah/Western Colorado. If you look at the road map, there is a single V shaped highway in the area. If you go to satellite and zoom in, you'll see there are TONS of small paved (and unpaved) roads all over the place. In that particular area, there was a lot of natural gas development so many/most of those roads were made by extraction companies creating access to drilling sites. If you haven't driven far off the highway in any of these types of areas, you'd be absolutely shocked how far out in the middle of nowhere some of these industry sites are. I recall driving almost three hours off a state highway to a rock hounding location and seeing a very large production building of some sort in the distance. There are mining and oil operations all over the SW and that's what most of the roads service.

In the end, it's almost always about accessing economic sites - it's not like the state decided to build random roads all over the place. Instead, at some point, someone needs/wanted a road to a certain area (often way off the beaten path) and it was built. Sometimes they are built privately and turned over to the state/county once the private lease on the land expires and goes back to them, sometimes the state/county subsidizes them, sometimes the state/county just builds it if they feel it will be an economic benefit to the area - that I am less knowledgeable about.

The American West is a fascinating place - the amount of space is unimaginable for most people that haven't directly experienced it. That space has a lot of stuff spread out over a vast amount of distance, and that's what the roads serve.
posted by _DB_ at 8:01 AM on May 13, 2021 [20 favorites]

Another important thought in terms of road-spending per capita is that rural roadworks are not very expensive per mile. Urban and suburban roadworks, often involving highly engineered overpasses and bridges, and extremely expensive land condemnation, are going to be orders of magnitude more costly per mile.
posted by MattD at 8:05 AM on May 13, 2021

I have a hard time understanding the premise of your question. The roads are there because there are still people who live out west who need to travel between places. Most of the roads are state or county roads that are generally set up such that there's just one road between X and Y. In a well-populated NE area, you might have 5 different routes between A and B, but out west, you have one option, which will take you 3 hours, and the next best option will take you 5 hours because there are no other roads around that go where you need to go.

Most of the roads out west exist because they connect small towns to one another and to the larger connector roads. There's just not as much population density, so you go longer without seeing people.
posted by hydra77 at 9:09 AM on May 13, 2021 [5 favorites]

State departments of transportations are pretty much highway departments, and what they know how to do is build highways. They use this mechanism to keep their jobs and keep employing others.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:00 AM on May 13, 2021

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