Some tourist who drives along Nine Mile Canyon Road for the first time will take it for granted that there are no rooster tails of dust being churned up and no man-sized chuckholes lying in wait to swallow tires.
After two years of work and more than $20 million invested, the road is wider, safer and surfaced with rock chips and a slurry seal. Improvements stretch 34 miles from the Soldier Creek Mine to the Great Hunt pictograph panel at Cottonwood Canyon.
Oh, and just a few miles up canyon from the mine, there's an asphalt patch near the road shoulder. It is likely to be the first of many patches on the road because rock chips and microsurfacing are not all that durable.
Engineers estimate that road upkeep could cost Carbon and Duchesne counties around $700,000 a year.
This is one reason why the Carbon County Commission wants to plunk another $16 million on the road to pave it with asphalt. Loan payments would likely be cheaper than maintenance.
So the county has amended its priority list on requests to the Permanent Community Impact Board to ask for a $9.6 million grant and a $6.4 million loan.
"It would be ludicrous to let it deteriorate," Commissioner John Jones told members of the Nine Mile Canyon Road Cooperative Board last week. He said the same at a public hearing on the priority list at the commission meeting the next day. (Technically it was the commission acting as the Municipal Building Authority.)
While Jones contended that the paving would protect what has already been invested, citizen Steve Tanner claimed it would do more harm than good during the public comment period.
Tanner said the paving would create "a total industrial highway" through the canyon. It would be used more for transporting heavy crude oil than for tourism. Such a thing was never in the Environmental Impact Statement, he added.
Jones said that while some tank trucks might use the paved road, the overall benefits would still be significant for tourism.
This is not the first time asphalt paving has been discussed. More than a year ago, the Recreation/Transportation Special Service District Board rejected that option in favor of the chip seal surface.
The reasoning at the time was that while maintenance would be more expensive, it could also be deferred if there were a financial crunch. There is no such flexibility on loan payments, though.
The district, like the CIB, depends on mineral lease royalties for funds. With natural gas prices depressed and the future of coal uncertain, the district board decided to hold off on the asphalt option.