Home News and Features Road Warriors: This year’s mud season average, but ‘relentless’

Road Warriors: This year’s mud season average, but ‘relentless’

This dirt road in East Montpelier gets squishy this time of year. Photo by Carla Occaso.
Yes it is muddy and squishy on the roads this year, but several local road commissioners say it is not an unusually bad season.

Guthrie Perry, East Montpelier’s road foreman, explains that this year’s mud season may seem worse to those who have only lived here for the past decade or so, but it is not as bad as many decades ago. Perry says he has heard from old-time Vermonters that it used to be much worse.

“Some of the new arrivals to our community are getting a hard education on what ‘mud season’ in Vermont can look like. So your question — is mud season worse this year? Worse than average for the past 10 to 15 years. Yes. Worse than 30 to 40 years ago. Probably more of an average year.”

A variety of factors caused trouble. Warm temperatures in March came on fast and didn’t subside at night for many nights, which allowed for the top six to eight inches of road surface to thaw quickly, Perry wrote by email. Windy conditions accompanied the warm weather, which helped dry road surfaces. 

East Montpelier hired M. Brown Trucking to assist in getting material on the roads that were in need of repair. Perry put together a few quick numbers just to give a glimpse of the cost of mud season … (as of March 25):

“We have used the majority of 1,400 yards of gravel that we had in inventory. We have also hauled in an additional 1,800 yards that went directly onto the roads. That figures out to about 228 loads of gravel over 50 miles of gravel roads. This comes with a price tag of just under $50,000 for the month of March. Then add in a spike in fuel that got us up to about $6,000 for the month. Mud season has been expensive and slightly relentless.”

Perry also noted how manpower has been a challenge for some towns, but East Montpelier has a full crew.

Similarly, Worcester Road Commissioner Brian Powers reports this year is worse only because many roads became impassable at the same time. “In 28 years I have seen mud this bad; however, I’m not sure I’ve seen so many areas all bad at the same time in town,” Powers wrote by email. “It is too early to determine how much we have spent, but it’s definitely more than normal for mud season.”

Berlin’s Town Administrator Vince Conti told The Bridge he has heard from others that this mud season is worse, but “Berlin has been able to manage their roads in such a way that it is no worse than previous mud seasons.” Conti said the town road crew performs routine surveys to prioritize maintenance and is able to keep most roads open during mud season. However, “it can be extremely difficult to keep up with all the issues, and will need to close certain roads due to their conditions and accessibility.”

Conti also noted that many towns in Vermont have limited road crews and need to work by priority to keep roads open. At times, crews may not be able to address certain areas in poor condition because driving heavy equipment on the roads only makes it worse.

The view of Zach Blodgett, the operations manager of the Department of Public Works and Montpelier’s key road warrior, agrees largely with that of Perry. This year’s mud season came upon us quickly because of the sudden very warm temperatures in early March. It caused frost to leave the ground quickly and created a “wet, soupy mess” on many back roads. However, Blodgett said Montpelier is fortunate to have fewer gravel roads than other towns. But in dealing with those muddy roads, there is only so much you can do until the moisture leaves the soil. “Applying stone with a bucket loader allows crews to address the problem areas. At other points in the year a grader would be sent out to repair the gravel road and move material around. When there is so much moisture in the ground, grading the road this time of year usually worsens the issue.”

Blodgett said he won’t really know until early May, once mud season is over, how this year’s mess compares to previous years. The way to assess it is to quantify man hours and the cost of material needed to fix the roads. Blodgett noted he has not seen a mud season as bad as this, but he pointed out he had not been paying attention to dirt roads because he only recently became the city’s operations manager for the Public Works Department.

What is mud season? According to the Green Mountain Club, mud season is the period between winter and spring when thawing occurs. It depends on weather, but historically it begins around the snowmelt in March or April and finishes in early June. Vermont’s winters are long and cold, which gives the ground soil ample time to freeze 60 to 70 inches deep (depending on latitude). As temperatures warm, the frozen ground begins to thaw and releases water. Thawing continues downward as temperatures rise. Because the lower ground stays frozen longer, water is prevented from draining down into the earth — it is trapped on the surface layer — creating mud.