Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Enjoy the Small Stuff

(from the December Editor's Note in AsphaltPro Magazine)

My editorial notes to you rarely sway from industry topics, but this month’s issue is so full of heady material and industry forecasts that I had to give you and me a break. What better time of year to slow down for a moment and enjoy a bit of peace and tranquility than the advent of the holidays? As this issue lands in your mailboxes, you’re probably polishing off the last of the pumpkin pie and turkey sandwiches from Thanksgiving. I have an African Grey parrot who joins you in that. She is addicted to pumpkin pie, and while she’s not old enough to form full words yet, she recognizes what words precede yummy treats.

Something else is happening as the State of the Industry issue arrives this year. The United States, as a nation, is recovering from an economic recession. Because I live in a continual state of paranoia, I won’t be rushing out to invest in anything just yet, but it does my heart good to hear pundits on the news stations advising Americans that the housing market will turn around next and the time to buy stock is now and so on and so on. It gives us hope where there previously has been too much fear.

I don’t want to linger on the subject of funding here, but that’s where our minds wander when we wonder about recovery. The construction sector of this country builds more than infrastructure; it builds families, communities, local economies and that "hope" I mentioned above. Just a few days before I sent this letter to press, The Journal of Commerce reported that 6,547 projects were under way thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Another 3,500 or so had been approved. Think of the number of men and women working on those projects. It may seem only a drop in the bucket, but it’s 6,547 more projects—and that many more workers—than we had in motion prior to the act’s passage in February.

Also at this time, I’m preparing to celebrate Christmas, which always raises my spirits. Don’t let my profession of Christianity frighten you. I have plenty of friends who practice other religions who are celebrating other holidays at this time of year. I wish all of us a peaceful, loving, hope-filled season with loved ones gathered around us. It’s been a difficult year for some. I know of losses we’ve suffered in this industry, in our families. It’s a good time to reflect on those lives and reach out to our friends in love and comfort. It’s a good time to worship with friends and family and thank our God for His provision. It’s a good time to pause and enjoy the small stuff.

I wish you all a merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

Stay Safe,
Sandy Lender, Editor (sandy at theasphaltpro dot com)

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The Answer: We Must Stop Driving

(from the November Editor's Note of AsphaltPro Magazine)

Shortly, you will see how simple it is. The answer to our country’s economic problems lies in the fact that we all own cars. What selfish pigs we are to expect freedom.

Let me delve into reality for just a moment. At press time, Congress had voted to extend the currently expired SAFETEA-LU program another seven weeks. That means, by the time you receive this in the mail, we’ve got just more than a month (through Dec. 18) for legislators to come up with a new plan to get funding in place to keep additional monies flowing for federal highways, to accept an 18-month extension, to accept a six-month extension, to accept an extension to Dec. 31, or to accept Oberstar’s approximately $500 billion six-year bill.

At first blush, it seems like a lot of options are on the table and we should be swimming right along with keeping infrastructure up to par. Unfortunately, when the last bill expired Sept. 30, states felt a jolt. Money was rescinded. Some people in this country who have a difficult time understanding the very real need for a healthy and safe highway and roadway system have suggested this is for the best because we shouldn’t be driving cars anyway.

A byproduct of the current rescission of $8.7 billion in federal transportation funds that I don’t think anti-roads lobbyists expected is the cancellation of green projects. For instance, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) reported that officials at the Tennessee Department of Transportation (DOT) pulled $30 million out of its coffers for enhancement grants. That means:
* no restoration of old train stations
* no new bike trails and
* no new sidewalks.
AASHTO also reported that Nevada DOT officials are cutting $8 million from transportation enhancements. They’re also cutting $4 million from their federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) projects and another $4 million from the Safe Routes to School Program.

These are not positive developments, but state money movers have little choice. Back in 2007, Congress decreed that when state officials make cuts (rescind funds) from programs, they have to do so proportionally. That means if you take a little from this road, you have to take a little from that CMAQ project, too.

Even with the worry building around whether or not Congress understands the process involved in realistic transportation, there’s some ray of hope for motorists. Note that states can still let state projects (if there’s a state budget for that). Counties can still let county projects (if there’s a county budget for that). Cities can still work on city projects (if there’s a city budget for that). You catch my drift.

The problem is everyone gets nervous when you talk about cutting his or her budget for next year in half. And rightly so. What’s worse is we’re talking about cutting the budget in half for “who knows how long?” Folks suddenly worry about all their projects.

I’m a proponent for cautious creative funding (I’ll call it CCF). If you’re a state DOT official, you’ve got to get creative with your project funding. There are interstates and bridges that need repair. There are asphalt roadways that might not need repair yet, but by performing preventive maintenance on them, you extend the pavement’s life. You make a small investment now to keep a larger investment from happening 10 or 20 years from now. But if your budget’s just been slashed, what on earth is going to compel you to run out and perform anything but the absolute worst-case reconstructs?

Some municipalities have raised their own bond measures, sales taxes and property taxes to pay for everything from specific road projects to maintenance of specified areas of the grid. What this leads to is shiny streets and well-kept utilities right up to the federal-funded interstate that’s causing high car-maintenance bills for those folks who just voted to have their taxes raised. I bet those citizens won’t be too keen on another tax hike next election season.

Some counties have seen toll measures pass. Funds for future repairs, enhancements and preventive maintenance start rolling in, but motorists unwilling to add $5 to $10 to their weekly commute take alternate routes not built for the increased traffic loads. Safety problems, repair costs and user delays rise on the parallel routes.

The solution to all of this has been suggested already. We must stop driving. Anti-roads lobbyists have actually suggested that people in both rural and urban settings must get out of their cars and into buses (although I’m not sure what the buses will be driving on), trains, trolleys and other people movers. While I can see a logical pattern to mass transit in city situations, it boggles the mind to think this would work in rural areas. But this is the suggestion put forth to clear cars from roadways, thus getting us “off” that horrid road and oil dependency we have.

Obviously, we have to raise taxes and spend inordinate amounts of money to build a metallic people-moving infrastructure. While we’re at it, I suggest we train ourselves to be lackadaisical about deadlines and meeting times because, coming from a purely cynical point of view, I don’t think these things are going to run in a timely fashion. They’re being created by legislative action, after all.

If we recycled our cars into something else (and I’m sure there are people in Canada and Switzerland working on that “something” now) and all moved into cities where the mayors have magically raised the funds to build superfragicagilisticexpialodociocidous (I changed it so as not to get sued) mass transit services to move people around, why, there would be no need for cars or roads or road R&D or safety or innovation or jobs or any of those crazy things that the Federal Highway Fund has been encouraging.

All our goods would be delivered by train because trains never have accidents thus don’t require funding to find ways to make them safer or more efficient or to ensure none of their operators (remote or otherwise) have sleep apnea. And we can conduct all business meetings by teleconference and Internet now so we no longer need airplanes. No one actually has to see their loved ones in person when we have Webcams. Besides, once the current generations kick off, people will be living in those insular inbred cities anyway. There’ll be no need to travel far…

So why is it important to renew funding for transportation? Why think of CCF ideas to supplement a gas-tax-based funding program? Why worry about a road that needs repair? Why worry about bridges that crumble into the waters beneath them? Why make plans to resurface and keep asphalt pavements in pristine condition for maximum safety and perpetual life? I mean, isn’t the world ending December of 2012 anyway?
Stay Safe,
Sandy Lender, Editor (sandy at theasphaltpro dot com)

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New Oil and Sea Turtles

(from the October Editor's Note in AsphaltPro Magazine)

My name is Sandy Lender and I’m an environmentalist. It’s good to see I’m among friends here in the asphalt industry. Truly, if you’re a member of the asphalt industry, you’re an environmentalist. You’re a conservationist.

I could harp on this industry’s care of the land we mine for aggregates, our caution keeping dust out of the air, our excellent track record keeping contaminants out of the ground, or our successes protecting workers from what minimal fume our end product emits, but people reading this column already know these things. Instead I’m going to tell you something that might surprise you a little bit.

I’m what you would call a “raving” environmentalist. Yes, I abhor the plastic water bottles. I carry cloth bags with me to the grocery store. In fact, when my first novel was published, I had cloth bags with my book cover printed on them made up to hand out as promotional items to help with that whole “Down With Plastic Bags!” movement. I participate in coastal cleanup days and I volunteer with a sea turtle conservation project called Turtle Time.

That brings us around to the Gulf of Mexico, the large body of water near which I live. I moved here from the Midwest for one reason, but stayed for the conservationist opportunities available to me here. I’m not saying you can’t find worthy and rewarding causes to aid in the upper states—and I encourage everyone to get involved in a cause that brings you a sense of accomplishment and joy—but my heart is at home with the marine issues.

Recently, some workers for BP drilling way out by the Keathly Canyon in the Gulf found an incredibly deep, and incredibly flush, reserve of oil. When I say incredibly deep, I mean that they sunk the drill to the depth of the height of Mount Everest (or a little further). That’s how far into the planet the workers probed to extract the blood we need.

This looks like it’s going to bring in about 3 billion barrels of domestic oil once it’s producing. Now, that’s not going to happen until about 2015, give or take, but it’s supposed to make life nicer around these parts.

Some might say the Tiber Project has really come through.

I stopped to consider what I thought of that. Are the folks at BP putting responsible practices in place for pulling that much product up and getting it to shore? We’ve got a declining loggerhead sea turtle population along the Gulf shores of Florida right now. Will increased activity a few years from now worry those turtles right away from one of their few ideal nesting grounds? Maybe the canyon is far enough away, being about 250 miles southeast of Houston, that the turtles will just gracefully glide on by. Maybe the officers at BP care about marine life management enough to take such things into consideration while they plan for increased profits and increased traffic. I’ll be one of the members of the environmentalist asphalt industry watching to see how they handle it.

Stay Safe
Editor, Sandy Lender (sandy at theasphaltpro dot com)

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