The Asphalt Paving Association of Iowa (APAI) sits down with consulting engineers and with officials at the counties and cities “to provide them with best and most cost-effective ways to rehabilitate roads,” says Bill Rosener, APAI executive vice president, explaining that rehab often requires 4 to 5 inches of overlay, but that budget-tightened agencies are actually doing 2 to 3 inches “just to get them by. Even when they have some money to do rehab, they’re not doing it to the level that they really need to or should do, because they can’t.”
The secondary roads most vulnerable to cost cutting often have a sealcoat surface, “a liquid asphalt with chips applied across top, which is OK for very low maintenance,” says Rosener. “Eventually, they need to do some hardsurfacing with an asphalt overlay. These roads are well-suited for that, but the people just haven’t had the money to do it. If you don’t keep up with the chip seal or overlay with asphalt, eventually it begins to break down and turn back into a gravel road.”
A Supporting Cry
If county or state agencies do decide to turn paved roads back to gravel, or perhaps more accurately simply allow this to occur somewhat naturally, they’re not going to receive any heat about it from the industry most negatively affected by such a decision. Conversely, they’ll receive nothing but sympathy from the asphalt paving sector.
“You bet I feel for them,” says Tom Gaetz, executive director, Washington Asphalt Pavement Association. “Here in America, how would we ever imagine that we could have roads being converted back to gravel because we don’t have the money to maintain them as paved surfaces?”
As with Gaetz in the Pacific Northwest, Rosener reports that such a movement is certainly not yet prevalent in Iowa, which has the 13th-longest road system in the nation, but that rumors and even anecdotal evidence suggest the practice is starting to occur in isolated situations.
“The bigger issue is that we just have a severe lack of funding,” says APAI’s Rosener, “and the counties are feeling it probably worse than anybody. There’s a severe need within our state.” A study done for the DOT in the early part of last decade indicated that Iowa needed to increase its funding for roads by $220 million annually, “just to maintain,” he says. A few minor revenue recommendations were adopted then, but the key one, an increase in the gas tax for the first time since 1988, was not. “That need’s just amplified since,” says Rosener, “and honestly, right now, the DOT and the counties and the cities for that matter are just doing their very best to just hold on by their teeth.”
There is, says Rosener, a faint glimmer of hope: As compared to his predecessor who was strongly against a gas tax increase, current Gov. Terry Branstad has appointed a committee to study the road funding shortfall and report back with recommendations by year’s end. “We’re certainly pressing for that,” says Rosener, citing a Reason Foundation report last September that ranked Iowa’s roads system 31st in the country overall. “Without any additional funding, we’re definitely going to be dropping in the ranks.”
In Washington state, Gaetz will continue to build coalitions to lobby for funding increases, based in part on past success. “When we ask for these increases, I have found that if we don’t have dedicated funds, we have lost the confidence of the voting public,” he explains. “So, one of our big deals here is that when we look at revenue packages, we identify defined needs.” A transportation gas tax increase was successfully passed in the state in 2005-06 after work by proponents included the development a list of 273 specific capital improvement projects. “We got $17 billion to address that project list,” says Gaetz, “and every one of those projects on that list is under construction and will be completed by the year 2016.
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