Two news items in this issue present conflicting forecasts regarding the financial means to construct and maintain our highway infrastructure.
The first is a positive forecast from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), predicting a 5.4 percent increase in 2006 for the U.S. highway construction market. The value of construction work performed on highway and bridge projects is projected to be a record $70.3 billion in 2006, up from $66.9 billion in 2005, according to the report. Some of that projected increase may be negated by rising construction costs, like steel, cement and petroleum products. But according to the report, strong economic growth has boosted general state tax revenues, resulting in less pressure to dip into highway funds to balance state government budgets.
The second news item, however, paints a more ominous future for highway construction. According to a report from the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), the Highway Trust Fund is on the verge of bankruptcy, and immediate short-term solutions such as indexing the gas tax to inflation are required to guard against future fund erosion.
Well, the sky is not falling, so take a deep breath.
While the debate continues on whether or not sufficient funds will be available to maintain a safe highway system and allow for future improvements and expansions, road contractors and road agencies will need to look for creative solutions to meet the needs of our road system with the dollars available to do so.
From where I sit, flexible hot mix asphalt pavement is the solution for meeting those needs at a price taxpayers are willing to support. Case in point, read the Marquette Interchange story in the December issue of Asphalt Contractor. As noted, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation specified an asphalt perpetual pavement design over Portland cement concrete because it determined that maintaining the road over the 75-year design life would cost less and cause fewer traffic disruptions. The WisDOT decision to specify asphalt over concrete is a pretty strong testament for the HMA industry, but there’s more to the story.
Asphalt can be recycled and used in the production of new asphalt. There’s no reason to landfill perfectly good aggregate and asphalt cement when DOTs are allowing a fairly high percentage of reclaimed asphalt pavement (RAP) to be used in base and binder courses. And there are also plenty of good preservation techniques that can and should be used to extend the life cycle of good asphalt roads. There are a number of preservation approaches that rejuvenate aged asphalt, keeping it in place to serve as a good intermediate course for a new surface treatment or HMA overlay.
So when you consider the economic health of the road construction industry, know that funding is available — it may not be as much as the industry would like, but it is a substantial increase over previous funding amounts — and then continue to promote solutions that will help your agency customers get the most out of the dollars they have to spend.
Have a prosperous 2006!
Greg Udelhofen, Editor