Cheap roads…don’t count on it

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 15, 2006

Access to viable transportation for most of us depends a great deal on the roads we drive.

Like everything else (except for our incomes), the costs of building new roads and repairing current ones continue to skyrocket. Troubled by this development, I decided to do a little research.

The two main questions dominating my thoughts and keeping me up nights (I wish I was joking, but I’m not) are why is it so expensive to build roads and what types of technological advances have road construction companies made lately?

I also spend considerable time thinking about how mass transit might solve some of our transportation problems, but my expectations are low.

My interest and confusion in these subjects peaked last month when I read about a new parkway planned for the Research Triangle Park. Estimates for the construction of the Triangle Parkway come in between $124 million and $148 million for a three mile stretch of road.

Three miles of road for $148 million…..amazing.

The only solace I took from reading this was learning about a plan to pay for much of the parkway through the use of tolls on the new road.

I know the price of oil continues to rise and this factor affects the costs of road construction, chiefly the cost of asphalt, but $148 million for three miles seems extreme.

According to the National Asphalt Paving Association, the first recorded use of natural asphalt as a road building material was in Babylon around 625 B.C. Refined petroleum asphalts, which is a combination of bitumen (a petroleum product) glued together with sand and crushed rock, eventually replaced the use of natural asphalt in the early 20th century.

There have been advancements in the road construction and paving industry over the years, but compared to other forms of technology, the advancements are less than earth-shattering. Some of the advancements include electronic leveling controls and extra-wide finishers, capable of paving two lanes at once, but I’m somewhat skeptical of the advances the road construction/paving industries claim. I recognize if they build high-quality, long-lasting roads, they might put themselves out of business.

Unfortunately, my early research has yet to find satisfying answers to why the costs of constructing new roads and highways continue to rise at such a rapid pace.

I was pleased to read about a project incorporating recycled materials, including reclaimed concrete and asphalt, scrap tires, plastics, roofing shingles and composted organic wastes, instead of raw materials into asphalt and concrete pavement and embankments.

I recognize highway agencies are under pressure to improve road performance while reducing the amount of time drivers are delayed by highway maintenance and federal funding through gas, state and local taxes are apparently no longer sufficient to pay for our road construction and maintenance needs.

These problems, like many others, call for new and innovative solutions. I wish I had the answers, but here are a few I read about.

One piece of the puzzle includes the state and federal government supporting efforts to develop long-lasting, lower maintenance pavement.

Another possible solution, albeit a controversial one, calls for privately owned roads. Private companies would raise money for highway projects with tax exempt bonds, potentially reducing the financing costs of projects. States would retain the right to regulate toll rates on the private roads, but the private operators would operate the roads. Texas, California and Virginia are already experimenting with the concept.

Improved and more accessible mass transit has to be part of the equation, but I won’t hold my breath.

Anyone with answers please contact this interested citizen.