Asphalt Faces a Concrete Challenge

Posted February 3, 2009 at 5:56pm

On House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staffer Jim Berard’s daily trip from the Annapolis, Md., area to Capitol Hill, the road turns from asphalt to concrete as he approaches the District.

Berard doesn’t know why. It could be the weather, the number of cars that travel on the road or any number of considerations that officials make when choosing how to build a road.

But one thing’s for sure: With billions and billions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects at stake in the ongoing stimulus battle, asphalt and concrete lobbyists are now trying to convince federal lawmakers that their product is best for the task.

And like the roads on which Berard travels, there seem to be convincing reasons for each product.

Asphalt, a black malleable paving surface made of a petroleum product and crushed rock, is used on 94 percent of the country’s highways and byways, according to the National Asphalt Pavement Association.

The cheap material, also known by school kids everywhere as “blacktop” — the primary culprit for particularly cruel knee scrapes — replaced concrete as the go-to paving option three decades ago, when engineering advances made the product easier to use, and hence more practical in in urban areas.

Jay Hansen, a spokesman for the National Asphalt Pavement Association, explained that early large-scale transportation projects, such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike, used only concrete — a mixture of cement, sand and a coarse aggregate like gravel — which produces a hard, light-grey surface that is long-lasting but expensive to repair when it inevitably cracks.

“If a concrete road were to fail, you have to take the whole thing out,” he said. ”Asphalt, if you’ve got a surface problem, you mill off 2 inches and lay down a new surface.”

And all of that maintenance also means well-paying jobs, Hansen added, a pitch his organization is now making to Senators. In a letter sent Monday, his group told Senators that “the asphalt paving industry has been especially hard hit by the recession.”

“The asphalt paving industry will mobilize quickly upon enactment of H.R. 1 to produce the material needed to rehabilitate our nation’s highways, roads and bridges,” a Feb. 2 letter from Hansen’s group reads. “Since our work building and maintaining pavements is one of the most visible from the perspective of the public, your constituents will see their economic stimulus dollars put to work building and rehabilitating the highways and bridges they use every day.

“This legislation will not only save and create good paying American jobs that cannot be shipped overseas, it will also fund the latest technologies in sustainable pavements.”

The concrete lobby, however, is urging lawmakers to include vague qualifiers in the bill’s language that will instruct local and state governments to use concrete for bridge, tunnel and road projects.

John Shaw, a lobbyist for the Portland Cement Association, said his group has “nothing against the asphalt industry, [but] concrete does last longer and requires much less maintenance.”

“Quite frankly, it lasts forever,” he said. “If the president wants the investments coming with the stimulus package to be long-term and permanent investments, cement and concrete products represent that … you don’t have to resurface every three to five years.”

Shaw also said his group is urging lawmakers to use modifiers like “long-term,” “durable” and “sustainable” in the stimulus language, which is expected to reach President Barack Obama’s desk by Presidents Day.

“When you go to the federal legislative process, it’s important that you signal to states and localities that there is a materials choice available to them,” he said.

Stuck in the middle of the showdown is the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, which represents contractors, suppliers and manufacturers specializing in both asphalt and concrete construction projects.

ARTBA Chief Executive Officer Pete Ruane said his group isn’t taking sides, but he agreed that the disparate interests are “being a little more aggressive than they have been historically.”

“We don’t take a position endorsing any product in this piece of legislation or any piece of transportation legislation,” he said. “Our position has been and will remain that the state — the owners of the project — will determine what the best product or material to use based on the specifics of the project.”

Despite the current infighting of his membership though, Ruane predicted any eventual bill will have more than enough goodies to go around.

“There’s enough resources in the House and Senate versions … there’s ample projects for all of these products,” Ruane said.