Financially troubled Tooele County is about to grind up a paved, 11-mile section of the old Pony Express Trail and turn it into a gravel road because that’s cheaper than fixing potholes.
Residents are pleading to delay that project to study its effects — contending it will make travel more hazardous and hinder what they say is often heavy traffic toward West Desert recreational areas including the Little Sahara sand dunes.
But county spokesman Wade Mathews said Monday the decision is final, and milling will begin on June 24 on the portion of Pony Express Road from near the Utah County line (not far from Fairfield) to near the town of Faust.
"It is just in an unsafe condition now," Mathews said. "There are some good stretches, so people reach high rates of speed. Then they have to slam on the brakes as they hit all these potholes and deteriorated areas."
The county figures that grinding pavement to turn the road into gravel will cost $32,000. It calculates that repairing the pavement and deep potholes would cost $92,000. The county is trying to save money as it works through severe budget shortfalls that led to extensive layoffs and other cuts, such as canceling the county fair.
"But 98 percent of the road is good," said Dan Lybbert, who owns a recreational home just off the road and is leading a drive to save the pavement. "Why spend the $32,000 when you might be able to spend less and save the 98 percent of the road that is good?"
He said bad portions are generally where the county dug up the road for utility work and never repaired it.
He contends a gravel road may be more dangerous than potholes by forcing cars to drive in dust clouds and rocks as they follow one another, or even create dust storms on windy days. He said it is a route often used by large numbers of bicyclists, and warned that gravel would be more dangerous for them. "Also, it’s the Pony Express Trail. It’s historic. People come to see and drive it."
Shannon Fowles, who owns Faust Creek Farms on the road, worries a gravel road will scare aware customers who drive from Utah and Salt Lake counties to special events he holds including farm days, pumpkin sales at Halloween, Easter egg hunts and Christmas tree sales.
"From about Wednesday to Sunday night, it’s just a steady stream of campers and cars with four-wheelers" going to such places as Little Sahara sand dunes, Fowles said.
But Mathews said, "If they are going to Little Sahara, they are taking the long way. There are shorter routes. ... This is not a highly traveled road." But he said he is not sure if the county has done a study on traffic volume there.
Lybbert said it makes sense to study traffic volume before removing pavement.
Mathews said the route will still be open and graded year-round with snow removal, but will have slower speeds. He said those who want to drive on paved roads have options.
"But they add 17 to 18 miles to the trip," Lybbert complained.
Mathews said the road was graveled as recently as the 1990s, when "a company approached Tooele County offering some free experimental asphalt. It was just laid out there. The road was not built to county standards. There was no road base placed there," he said. "It ended up lasting about 15 years."
Mathews said costs are driving the current decision.
"At this point now to repair the road, it would require rotomilling the road anyway and putting down fresh road base and then asphalt. It can’t just be patched up anymore. ... It’s too cost prohibitive for the county right now," he said.
"We are repairing other roads that are more traveled than this one — the Mormon trail between Tooele Valley and Rush Valley" and the road to Ibapah from the Nevada border, where "there is an Indian reservation and a lot more population than what uses the Faust road."
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