Geologist discusses local road damage

MORGANTOWN — The state of West Virginia’s roads and why they are in the condition they are doesn’t have an easy answer.

Steve Kite grew up studying rocks, but his career leans toward landscapes and processes on the surface of the earth, like landslides and glaciers.

Technically, that makes him geomorphologist.

West Virginia is considered a high-risk area, susceptible to landslides. With rugged topography and unsolid foundations, when the deposits are disrupted they will often fail.

“Almost all the state is at landslide risk, and the road conditions follow along with that. It’s not a unique problem to Morgantown, but it is a pervasive problem in West Virginia,” he said.

The Department of Transportation and Division of Highways (DOH) employs geologists.

The state maintains a tremendous number of roads, Kite said. This means their resources are stretched thin.

Kite said a lot of the road problems, including landslides, often come back to humans.

Kite said there are a couple things going on in the state regarding road planning. One is for most of the state “zone” and “plan” are “four letter words” and projects are often done by trial-and-error. The state isn’t required to consult a geologist during project development, so a lot of time geologists don’t look at private roads as they’re built.

Second, Kite noted, private roads often become public roads.

“Forest Avenue in Morgantown should never have been built. It lasted a century or whatever, but nobody should have ever put a road there,” he said.

Forest runs from Spruce Street up to Richwood Avenue, and has seen many problems in recent months — enough to close it for months for repairs.

Kite also said River Road will succumb to long-term problems. That road was also closed for months following numerous landslides.

Over the winter months, Kite said he noticed deep potholes on Brockway Avenue, near the Walnut Street Bridge.

“You could see the old street car lines,” he said. “The rails were coming up, and the street car hasn’t operated in, I think, at least 80 years, maybe closer to 90. That road has not been redone. The foundation of that road is a century old.”

Kite said fundamentally, many roads need to be dug up and re-done over from scratch so they can be modernized. Instead, potholes are often just filled or paved over.

Steep slopes around Morgantown have an affect on the roads, as does what Kite called shrink-swell clay. This type of clay expands when it’s wet and shrinks as it dries. Kite said this leads to cracking of foundations and roadways.

Another factor is the Conemaugh Formation, named after a river in Pennsylvania. The formation extends from Morgantown to Charleston and has a lot of shrink-swell clay in it.

“That’s part of the problem statewide, that one rock unit,” he said.

One of Kite’s biggest pet peeves is what landowners do that cause roads to fail. He said a landowner will do something that is technically unsound, and it disrupts the roads.

Kite would like to see the DOH be able to get money for damages in these situations.

Kite thinks roads with recurring problems need to be redesigned.

“Bottom line, it’s going to take money. It’s going to take money in the short-term, otherwise we’ll just keep pouring money into patching potholes and repairing our automobiles for the long-term,” he said.

“I can guarantee you that many of these roads were never designed for the weight that they’re having to carry. The foundations are relatively shallow and worked fine when it was horses and wagons and Model T’s. But today, we have much heavier equipment,” he said.

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