Potholes, Paving, and Public Policy

by User Not Found | Apr 08, 2014

Potholes raise bigger concerns than traffic delays or damage to your car.

Because actually, that wasn't a pothole that just bent your rims, jolted your struts, and spilled your coffee. It was a public policy issue -- a matter of how and why the government spends our tax dollars.

Consider this. A pothole is a type of failure that only happens in asphalt pavement. You don't have to be an engineer to figure this out. Even Wikipedia says so.

So if asphalt is prone to potholes, and its main competitor (concrete) is not, why are 94 percent of the roads in the United States paved with asphalt?

It's a good question, but not really a concrete vs. asphalt debate. The core issue is how the government spends our tax dollars on public works projects such as streets and roads.

Traditional public works spending reflects a low-bid mentality. To ensure fairness and competition, officials accepted the cheapest price to build a road or street.

And until recently, it was cheaper and easier to put an asphalt road down than a concrete road. Quality issues and long-term costs were not factors.

However, there are signs that that is changing. First, asphalt is not necessarily the cheapest option anymore. And second, public works departments are getting more sophisticated in how they spend our tax dollars. They are looking beyond initial construction costs and factoring in the costs of maintaining streets and roads over their useful life--like filling potholes every spring.

Asphalt is made from oil, and therefore its cost, like gas, has increased at an average rate of 12 percent each year--three times as much as concrete costs. Asphalt's historic price advantage is no longer true today. Often, a concrete road costs about the same or are even cheaper than asphalt.

In addition, because concrete lasts longer and requires less maintenance than asphalt, state and cities could save billions of dollars in paving and road maintenance costs by paving with concrete.

According to a survey of department of transportation officials, asphalt roads face repaving every 13.6 years but a concrete road lasts 30 years or more with little maintenance.

Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that nearly 40 percent of the cost of a 30-year road paved with asphalt is tied up in maintenance, repair, and repaving costs. In contrast, maintenance and repair accounts for only 11 percent of the lifetime costs of concrete roads.

Life-cycle cost analysis allows government officials to calculate costs over the lifetime of a project and not just initial construction costs. It factors in the durability and long-term maintenance costs of various pavement options to find the true costs, both upfront and over time.

It's a common sense approach that reflects how most of us make spending decisions.

So that thing in the road you just hit?  It may have looked a lot like a pothole, but it was really a public policy issue -- the legacy of our low-bid mentality in public works spending.

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