Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Add This to the Federal Highway Funding Mix

(from the April/May Editor's Note of AsphaltPro magazine)

Senator John McCain suggested in mid-April that we remove taxes from gasoline for about three months to help families foot rising costs. I wasn't sure I heard the report correctly so I researched it. Luckily, it looked like enough folks were reeling from the announcement that he'd back off the idea.

But it struck me. When I lived 26 miles from my office, I counted my pennies to fill up the oh-so-sensible sedan that I keep in clean and constant repair, right down to the nitrogen-inflated tires, for excellent fuel economy. Trust me, that thing is still in constant repair. It has 173,000-plus miles on it. I'll drive it until it gasps its final cough and sputters to a stop at the side of the road. (Hopefully, one of you faithful readers will be in a work zone nearby.)

My point is I'm not about to buy one of these gas-guzzlers that McCain knows so many consumers own. He suggested we forego putting money into the economy-stimulating Federal Highway Trust Fund to help consumers save some cash. In turn, we'd spend the money saved in other areas, and transportation-dependent businesses, such as delivery services, would get a break as well.

While one of those goals is laudable, the other is not. As the editor of AsphaltPro, a magazine that speaks to the road construction industry, I would prefer having a job to saving a few dollars at the pump next month. Wouldn't you prefer to be employed as well? I can see a swell in the number of layoffs in this industry if we suddenly lose a couple billion dollars in highway funding this spring.

Here's the good news.

Consumers, while driving a bit less than we were this time last year, according to the Energy Information Administration (see Last Cut on pages 41-42), haven't given up driving altogether. Families may opt for vacations closer to home this summer, but they're not hitching up horses to a buggy to go. Trade and commerce still rely on over-the-road transportation to get goods to market, thus truck drivers still fill up the tank and carry the load. The folks who were my neighbors when I lived 26 miles from my office still drive to town to work every day and still buy gas to do it. And guess what? That getting-to-work phenomenon happens all over the United States (and beyond).

It's apparent in the accommodations manufacturers build into their automobiles that consumers expect long commutes. Look at the features you can select for multi-tasking ease while spending an inordinate amount of time in the family car. From sending text messages to searching XM stations to finding your way through foreign streets to relaxing against a pre-warmed back massager, cars are designed to let you forget how long you've been sitting in a leather bucket recliner while the engine in front of you burned the gas for which you spent $3.70 a gallon.

The moral of the story is consumers still demand gas for their vehicles, thus crude oil is still purchased, thus AC is still made, thus asphalt producers can still track prices through supply chains. The wheel keeps on turning. Consumers will continue to put much-needed funds into highway funding coffers as long as the tax is in place. Now, keeping that tax in place is up to us.

You can let your representatives know how important the current user fee is to your livelihood, to the maintenance of safe roads in this country, and to the building of needed infrastructure to reduce congestion and pollution by writing to them. Get their contact information at

Stay Safe,
Sandy Lender, Editor

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You Want to do WHAT in an Election Year?

(from the March Editor's Note of AsphaltPro magazine)

We ought to just label this "the tax issue" of AsphaltPro. We've got an article about transportation funding compiled from AASHTO Executive Director John Horsley's presentation at the recent NAPA meeting, our coverage of the NAPA meeting includes a hefty dose of info on transportation funding, and I'm about to rail on the topic here.

You have to understand, I don't like paying taxes. I live in a state where there is no state income tax, and that makes me pretty happy. (One less surprise to pay in April.) But a fuel tax that makes the roads I drive on safer is one of those inconvenient things that I almost welcome (almost) because it makes sense. And let's argue the word "inconvenient" for a moment, shall we?

How inconvenient is it to absorb an extra 40 cents that got worked into the system somewhere up the chain so I'm paying a couple cents extra at the pump? The steps:

1. insert debit card
2. pump gas
3. hang up nozzle
4. drive away

That wasn't so inconvenient, now, was it? It's not as if I was asked to write a large check to the state specifically to take care of the roads I want repaired so I can be safe, so my groceries can be delivered in a timely fashion to the store down the street, so the ambulance whisking a friend to the emergency room gets there without an additional accident, so the airplane taking me to CONEXPO doesn't have to wait in a long line because Runway C is too cracked for use.

Do you see my point? We don't feel the shock of a 40-cent user fee increase at the pump, but we sure will feel the shock of losing $70 billion in Federal Highway Funding next fall when the current user fee expires.

Consider the number of roads the construction industry can maintain if DOTs and counties see a sudden and sharp decrease in funding. How many new projects, intended to mitigate gridlock and congestion, do you think will go through if states suddenly can't go to the well for monies to pay contractors? And if states can't afford to let projects, how can producers and contractors afford to keep employees?

If your job is at risk, you must let your representative know. Why vote for him or her this fall if he or she isn't interested in protecting your welfare on not just that basic employment level, but on a safety level, too? The roads we all drive on should, at the very least, be preserved and maintained to keep them safe for travel. (Heck, about 4 to 6 percent of the roads in this country are concrete pavements that need to be replaced and/or resurfaced!)

The argument I present to you is that your representative in Congress should be concerned about your livelihood and your safety. If that person isn't willing to reinstate and up the user fee that funds highway and infrastructure expenses, then that person isn't willing to reinstate your job. Why should you be willing to reinstate his (or hers)?

Congress has to act this summer to get a user fee in place to replace the one that's expiring. Without it, we won't have the funds to continue maintaining and improving the nation's highways and bridges. Safety, thus lives, are at risk. Jobs, thus livelihoods, are at risk. It's time to make some phone calls. You can find your representatives' contact information at

Stay Safe,
Sandy Lender, Editor

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Transportation Funding Needs Your Voice

Join the Transportation Construction Coalition (TCC) this May 20 to 21 as members of the asphalt industry participate in the legislative process. Let your representatives know that the expiration of Federal Highway Funding Sept. 30, 2009, means the expiration of safe roads, economic growth and construction industry jobs.

If you can't participate in the 2008 TCC Legislative Fly-In this month, let your representatives know of your interest in the nation's future by writing or calling them directly. You can find their contact information at the site link below:

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AsphaltPro's Focus is Asphalt

(from the February Editor's Note of AsphaltPro magazine)

I'm going to come right out and say it. AsphaltPro magazine's owner has no interest in the concrete industry. Therefore, when I hit the roof and started ranting about the American Concrete Pavement Association's (ACPA) manipulation of data to make asphalt pavements appear more expensive to produce than concrete pavements, Chris (the publisher) knew what was coming next. I complained (loudly) about what I considered unfair tactics while I pilfered the Internet and better primary sources to get the scoop, and then I prepared a scathing editorial for you readers. We're not offending any family members' advertisers by telling asphalt contractors the truth.

In a nutshell, ACPA developed a software program called StreetPave to assist contractors in determining lifecycle costs for both asphalt and concrete pavements based on what the software determines to be "equivalent" pavement parameters. The software, according to Asphalt Institute's Dwight Walker, uses AI's SW-1 software paradigm, but makes a modification to the data in the asphalt equation. "They made some sort of modification without explaining to the user what it was," Walker said.

My attempts to clarify that with other engineers went unanswered, but it looks like the StreetPave software literally reduces the subgrade strength of the asphalt design when the user punches in a number. This forces the program to add inches of asphalt subgrade to the asphalt pavement in the comparison. This means more material and more materials cost in the asphalt equation.

According to AI's Nov. 28, 2007, post on its Web site, "StreetPave takes the single subgrade strength value input by the user (only one value is allowed) and inappropriately reduces it prior to running the asphalt thickness design calculation." Because the concrete pavement design doesn't receive a similar reduction, the two pavements cannot be considered equivalent after all, and the asphalt pavement ends up being extraordinarily thick. In other words, the asphalt pavement turns out more expensive to build, in the StreetPave model, than it actually needs to be.

Now, how many people purchasing the ACPA product are making a roadbuilding decision between HMA and PCC? One would assume concrete producers purchase software to maximize their concrete-production efficiency from concrete industry members, just as asphalt producers purchase software to maximize their asphalt-production efficiency from asphalt industry members, so perhaps it doesn't matter that ACPA has something that appears blatantly underhanded in its marketing arsenal. Or perhaps it does.

Consider how precious the few projects being let in your county are. Do you want the local concrete producer to walk into the DOT office with a copy of StreetPave to show the materials engineer how much more expensive it makes the next pavement look over its lifetime if he elects to use HMA instead of PCC? You would be well served to let the engineer know that the subgrade number for the asphalt pavement becomes less than reliable in the StreetPave program.

It's a manipulation of data that needs to be fixed before the comparisons in the program can truly be considered "equivalent". After reading up on the product on the AI Web site, I wondered if anyone from AI had contacted ACPA to alert them to the problem (in case it was an honest error) and what the response had been. I didn't get answers to those questions, but they're good ones for asphalt industry members to follow up on. At the ACPA Web site, owners of the software can download a StreetPave v1.2 patch that mentions nothing about fixing a data-manipulation error. So it sounds to me as if the concrete industry still has a mistake to fix.

Stay Safe,
Sandy Lender

(Postscript: Since the publication of the February issue of AsphaltPro, I've learned that Asphalt Institute engineers have not received word from ACPA concerning their mistakes in software engineering, thus the apparent StreetPave error remains in place.)

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