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Economic Dependence On Good Roads

By January 12, 2010 July 8th, 2014 No Comments

Pavement Preservation a Smart Road to Better Economies

A highway network is a lot like the human cardiovascular system. Good pavement and minimal construction zones keep a local economy moving, healthy and growing, but potholes and slow-moving construction projects are like plaque – they render regional commerce sclerotic.

This stands to reason. If a state or municipality is pockmarked by rough pavement, it is going to take longer to deliver goods in and out of the region. Delivery vehicles will be damaged more often (flat tires, bent tire rims, broken axels, etc.) and need more repairs. Labor and gas costs increase when traffic moves slowly – due simply to bad conditions, or lane closures during extended resurfacing projects – causing drivers and their passengers to endure more time per trip. When bad streets are all that connect consumers to a shopping center, the options to shop online, in stores elsewhere or not at all become much more attractive. The online alternative might come with a higher price if parcel delivery services (FedEx, UPS or US Postal Service) begin to tally and charge for the added costs of delivering in specific areas.

With aging highway and secondary road systems handling increasing amounts of traffic, this looks like a situation that can only go from bad to worse. The federal 2009 stimulus package will make a dent in repairing some of the roads, but even that infusion of money into the system can only repair a fraction of what needs to be done.

Where are the solutions? Ingenuity, particularly in how pavement preservation methods are helping reduce the cost of road maintenance, is America’s greatest resource. Many states, cities and counties are experimenting successfully with new products and methods because regional economies have so much to lose to bad roads.

Bad roads = Bad business
The Road Information Program (TRIP), a Washington-based non-profit organization that advocates for policies that relieve traffic congestion, improve road conditions and enhance economic productivity, released a report in 2004 on poor road conditions in Virginia (“Paying the Price for Inadequate Roads in Virginia, the Cost to Motorists in Reduced Safety, Lost Time and Increased Vehicle Wear”). A primary conclusion is “the quality of a region’s transportation system is an important factor in where businesses and industries decide to locate, expand or downsize. A modern transportation system is of critical importance if Virginia is to capitalize on economic development opportunities.”

Ninety-four percent of the $123 billion worth of commodities delivered annually to and from sites in Virginia is transported on the state’s highways.

Anyone ever stuck in traffic knows this is no small point. If costs for a driver are $60 an hour, and increased commuter times due to road repair or detour routing adds 200 hours per year, multiply that for a business with a fleet of 100 delivery vehicles and that business alone will incur an additional $1.2 million each year. If rough pavement adds $300 per vehicle costs every 12 months, that’s an additional $300,000 in repair costs. If customers are dissatisfied with either increased delivery costs or delayed deliveries, well, the damage is even greater.

The TRIP report elaborates further:

  • Ninety-four percent of the $123 billion worth of commodities delivered annually to and from sites in Virginia is transported on the state’s highways.
  • Businesses have responded to improved communications and greater competition by moving from a push-style distribution system, which relies on low-cost movement of bulk commodities and large-scale warehousing, to a pull-style distribution system, which relies on smaller, more strategic and time-sensitive movement of goods. The recent improvements in the nation’s logistics systems have made mobile inventories the norm, resulting in the nation’s trucks literally becoming rolling warehouses.
  • Trucking is a crucial part of Virginia’s economy, as commercial trucks move goods from sites across the state to markets inside and outside the state. Because of this, commercial truck travel in Virginia will increase by 51 percent by 2020.

In other words, economic forces are increasingly dependent on quality roads for delivery. In congested areas along the Eastern Seaboard, are states that are better at maintaining roads more attractive to businesses?

The report says those regions will definitely lose business if the roads are of poor quality:

  • A comprehensive 2002 Transportation Research Board report on the adequacy of U.S. freight movement capabilities looked at a region’s relative ability to provide a transportation system that minimizes traffic congestion and provides reliable freight movement. This factor alone can have a significant impact on job creation or loss to other areas.
  • Some production will move from the United States to other countries if congestion costs cause the United States to lose comparative advantage in some industries.

Such problems with roads, and their negative economic impact, are hardly limited to Virginia. Ohio, a crossroads state with about 65 percent of all U.S. manufacturing capacity within 600 miles of its borders (and 50 percent of population, the consumers of that manufacturing) has just as many challenges to its infrastructure as Virginia and many other states, according to data compiled by AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. The organization details how several states claim road quality is integral to their economic development:

  • California frequently ties transportation quality to “job creation and a positive impact on an average person’s daily life.”
  • Minnesota promotes highway improvement and economic development with the tagline “Our future is riding on it.”
  • Utah’s Chamber of Commerce in 2009 officially says, “A safe and efficient transportation system is foundational for Utah’s economic vitality, quality of life and growth.”

Almost all states face a Catch-22, however. Given the aging nature of the nation’s highways – and cash-strapped maintenance budgets from local, state and federal coffers due to the economic recession – how can states and local municipalities promote commerce in their jurisdictions when their roads are crumbling? Can this bad convergence of factors be averted?

Perhaps. Pavement preservation is one route. For every dollar spent on fixing small problems before they get bigger, between $6 and $7 are saved that would be spent on reconstruction, but how exactly does that happen?

Pavement preservation – the affordable way to keep economies moving
The U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), a division of the Department of Transportation, takes a strong position on why highways need to be preserved.

“The Interstate Highway System cost more than $129 billion to construct,” notes Robert M. Davies and Jim Sorenson, both construction and preservation engineers in the FHWA’s Office of Asset Management. “The cost to construct and maintain the more than 6 million kilometers (3.73 million miles) represent one of the nation’s largest infrastructure investments in our country’s history. Roads and streets are just that – an investment.”

Davies and Sorenson go on to say, “If we take a proactive approach in maintaining our existing highways, we can reduce costly, time-consuming rehabilitation and reconstruction and the associated traffic disruptions.”

Pavement preservation advocates tell us that best practices involves a variety of surface treatments that extend a road’s service life. These include:

  • Fog seals
  • Slurry seals
  • Chip seals
  • Cape seals
  • Sand seals
  • Rejuvenators
  • Micro-surfacing
  • Thin lift overlays
  • High-quality pothole repair
  • Crack sealing
  • Portland cement concrete joint sealing
  • Dowel-bar retrofit
  • Full and partial-depth concrete pavement repair
  • Milling and grinding

All of these are most effective when applied on a timely basis, before small cracks grow larger. For example, if any of the four indicators of road deterioration in a flexible pavement surface are present – presence of potholes, cracks, ruts or deformation – it is a trigger to use one or several methods for correcting the problem.

The most familiar pavement deterioration of course is potholes. Found in arctic and tropical climates alike, a pothole is a late-stage problem that begins with a simple crack that allows water accumulation under the surface of the road. If a fog or slurry seal was not applied in time, the pothole can still be fixed with hot or cold asphalt filler. Hot asphalt treatments are historically more common, yet incur expensive labor costs and are relatively ineffective over time. Cold asphalt treatments apply advanced technologies that are both easier to use and more effective, lasting several years after application. This is a marked improvement over hot asphalt treatments, which can deteriorate after only a few weeks in some circumstances.

Other successes with pavement preservation span the country:

  • Minnesota’s Department of Transportation (MDOT) uses mobile laser measuring technology to identify where repairs are needed. Other states that use similar technology are Rhode Island, Maryland and Oregon.
  • Washington State employs dowel-bar retrofits in aging concrete, which WDOT officials believe can add 10 to 15 years of use to 30-year-old concrete pavement.
  • Indiana DOT completed major pavement preservation projects on two interstate highways near the Indianapolis Speedway in less than two months each. To do this, they closed each highway completely – after an extensive education effort on the value of the approach – and collectively saved motorists and trucking companies about $60 million by when completing both projects a month in advance.

As with anything involving public funding, politics will always play a role in how efforts such as these move forward. As Utah’s former state House Speaker Greg Curtis once said when comparing new highway construction versus pavement preservation projects, there is no “glamour or ribbon-cutting” when potholes are filled or cracks are sealed. If only there were a visual way to demonstrate the billions of dollars those measures can save.

General wear and tear will ultimately destroy every road, just like life-long fitness buffs’ cardiovascular systems will eventually give out in old age. But with creative thinking, new technologies and communications that effectively sell the idea of the smart money in pavement preservation, it may be possible to put off such a day decades into the future.