The Lane Report ‘Asphalt vs. Concrete’

The Lane Report By Sean Slone

Ask the folks at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet in Frankfort who decide how to build and rebuild the state’s roads whether there is a rivalry between the concrete and asphalt paving industries, and they will tell you there is. But talk to representatives of those two industries and it becomes clear that the rivalry is based more on ambition than reality in Kentucky.

A road construction crew paves a scenic Kentucky roadway with asphalt. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet invests in hundreds of paving projects each year.

A road construction crew paves a scenic Kentucky roadway with asphalt. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet invests in hundreds of paving projects each year.

“There is somewhat of a rivalry,” said Paul Looney, transportation engineering branch manager in the Pavement Branch of the KYTC Division of Highway Design. “Both industries still push the benefits of their products, and we continue as a cabinet to see the benefits of both industries and both products in Kentucky. …Whether it’s ‘we’re greener or quieter’ or ‘we’re most effective,’ there’s a big marketing push nationally.”

That marketing push has at times taken a combative tone, according to Brian Wood, executive director of thePlantmix Asphalt Industry of Kentucky, which represents the state’s asphalt producers.

“There’s been a lot of marketing and advertising by the concrete industry, and most of it has been negative towards asphalt,” Wood said. “Instead of promoting concrete, they’ve been denigrating asphalt, and that really has not been well received in the asphalt industry. … And then at the local level, the concrete industry made a fairly bold claim that they were here to take 15 percent market share away from the asphalt industry. … I don’t know if you’d call it a rivalry. There are certainly a lot of battles out there. It’s a contentious issue within the community of transportation and paving.”

When it comes to what is actually happening on the state’s roads, Wood’s industry certainly appears to be winning the war, conceded Finley Messick, executive director of the Kentucky Concrete Pavement Association in Frankfort.

“It is hard to call it a rivalry when the asphalt industry has the lion’s share of the (Kentucky) work – approximately 98 percent annually,” he said. “The concrete industry continues to strive for a level playing field with government. There is no rivalry from the concrete industry, just an attempt to get fair treatment in government procurement.

“But honestly I do not believe there is an intended bias here. (KYTC) Secretary (Mike) Hancock and State (Highway) Engineer (and Department of Highways Commissioner) Steve Waddle have been working with our industry, but we still have not managed to increase concrete’s market share,” Messick said. “There are a lot of factors involved – changing perceptions and cultures are just a couple of them.”

Playing field is difficult to level

The dominance of the asphalt industry in road construction sets Kentucky apart from some of its closest neighbors.

This photo from May 2012 shows the concrete deck being poured on a new, replacement span of the Eggners Ferry Bridge on Kentucky Lake. The original span was knocked out by a cargo vessel in January 2012.

“If you go to a state like Missouri, their industries are more balanced,” Looney said. “They’re more like 50-50.”

“There is more balance in almost every nearby state,” Messick agreed. “Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia and Illinois have a much healthier two-pavement competition.”

Looney said the KYTC has been working the past six years toward creating a more level playing field for the two industries in Kentucky. That includes making greater use of alternate pavement bidding, in which the state solicits two equivalent pavement designs to try to determine the best value option.

“We probably averaged a dozen (alternate bid) projects a year in the last four years,” Looney said. “That’s how several states have handled trying to give everybody an equal opportunity.

“When there’s no overriding engineering factor on a project, when you look at it and the costs are similar, when there’s no overriding need to have one type (of pavement) because of weak soils or extremely heavy traffic, or I need to get in and out really quick, when there’s no other engineering factor, we have gone to bidding alternate pavement.”

Looney said the use of the procedure has increased competition and lowered bid prices. But the competition has mostly been among asphalt contractors in the state, in the concrete industry’s view.

“All alternate bids have gone to asphalt, some by very narrow margins,” Messick said. “The intent of this particular administration to do some alternate bidding was well intentioned but has not increased competition in any significant way. Only a small portion of total road contracting by (KYTC) was alternate bidding in the last two years, and this year only two or three projects were alternate bids.”

Concrete paving companies say preparing alternate bids is a costly process.

The underlying problem for the concrete industry, however, may be that it’s not on equal footing in terms of its statewide presence or how its product is perceived and utilized.

“What’s interesting to note is that there is a large percentage of projects that have been advertised by the (Department of Highways) as alternate bid that have not even received a concrete bidder,” Wood said. “There (are) only a handful of contractors on the concrete side, whereas there’s probably almost 30 asphalt paving contractors that have plants in almost every county.”

No one likes artificial levelers either

In addition to the disparity in the size of the two industries though, there are other differences that make them unequal or at least dissimilar.

“You’re comparing apples and oranges,” Wood said. “The two products are not the same. They don’t behave the same. They don’t require the same types of maintenance activities. They don’t have the same construction schedules. So it’s a challenge to try to come up with a system that’s perfectly fair for both industries.”

Asphalt is laid down in layers and then compacted by a Kentucky road paving crew. The asphalt industry touts its product as versatile and built to last.

Asphalt is laid down in layers and then compacted by a Kentucky road paving crew. The asphalt industry touts its product as versatile and built to last.

For one thing, the way the two products are measured and paid for is substantially different. Asphalt paving is applied in multiple long layers or lifts that are compacted by heavy rollers; concrete pavement techniques vary from more common pouring in slabs to laying precast segments and can include multiple layers. Concrete generally has higher load bearing capability and longer durability.

“Asphalt is paid for by KYTC on a per-ton basis. Concrete is paid for on a square-foot basis,” Messick said. “On large projects, using a weight measurement is not the same as using an area measurement for payment. Variations in weight and thickness can allow higher payments compared to an area-measured payment.”

But Wood called the contention that the difference might give anyone an unfair advantage “overrated.”

“We don’t build (an asphalt pavement) a square yard at a time,” he said. “We had one project where the cabinet made both products per square yard and paid per square yard, and had a very difficult time figuring out how to pay us because we lay a ‘lift’ at a time and we build it up over time, which is a benefit of asphalt. We can do staged construction. We can put traffic on it. We can do it at night. We don’t have to shut the whole road down and build it and wait for it to cure out and then put traffic on it.”

Messick countered that asphalt isn’t always faster for road construction and that speed of construction is a project-by-project consideration.

“The state is doing some small intersection work now with 24-hour (concrete) mixes,” he noted. Moreover, he contends, speed shouldn’t always be the primary consideration. When heavy trucks are allowed to roll over thin, incomplete asphalt intermediate layers, those layers are stressed, perhaps unnecessarily, he argued.

Both Wood and Messick said they have at times taken issue with KYTC practices that have attempted to account for factors that are beyond the control of one industry or to artificially level the playing field with indexes, penalties or double standards. Asphalt contractors, Wood said, don’t like the practice of bid adjustment that puts a penalty on the asphalt bidder. Those contractors, he contends, are also held to a higher standard than their concrete industry counterparts when it comes to pavement smoothness and ride quality.

Messick doesn’t like the use of indexes or escalators that allow the asphalt industry to get around issues surrounding the volatility in the price of their product. Asphalt, a liquid or semi-solid form of petroleum, has seen price spikes as the price of oil has fluctuated in recent years. When used in the alternate bid process, escalators allow the asphalt contractor to enter a low bid to win a project but the state could end up paying much more for asphalt materials at the time of construction if the price of oil increases substantially in the interim, the concrete industry contends.

An example of a new concrete intersection, this one on a new bypass project in Flemingsburg. It’s part of an overall project and not related to any pavement issues at the intersection per se, but it is now the best practice to use concrete at signalized intersections to prevent rutting and “washboarding” that occurs when heavy vehicles stop or sit for prolonged periods.

The Federal Highway Administration has advised, Messick points out, that “the use of commodity price adjustments for material prices is not desirable for alternate bidding contracts” and that while Kentucky continues the practice, Indiana does not. But Wood believes such practices are necessary to ensure the sustainability of the asphalt industry.

“Otherwise you’re putting the burden on the pavement contractor to guess at the cost of oil and gas … in the future,” he said. “If they guess wrong, they probably won’t be here to think about it or to do the work. … At least this way we’re paying the actual market cost and it may be less (when construction begins) than it is today and they may save money on the job.”

Messick has some ideas for what he believes might constitute fairer treatment for the concrete industry in government procurement. They include the state committing to doing a number of concrete-only projects every year, something Wood says sounds like a subsidy that “just doesn’t fit with free enterprise.” But Messick points out there are many asphalt-only projects and many single-bid asphalt projects every year. Messick believes concrete should be considered even in places where asphalt has previously been the material of choice.

Asphalt over concrete, literally

“Surely concrete deserves to be utilized for road projects more than 2 percent of the time,” he argued. “For example, if the state would consider concrete overlays of existing asphalt roads, the taxpayers of the commonwealth would benefit from an economical, long-lasting, low-maintenance pavement. … Almost uniquely in Kentucky, the vast majority of concrete pavements built in the ’60s and ’70s of concrete have been overlaid with asphalt. Once that is done, rarely is a concrete overlay considered. … In Missouri, there is a lot of concrete overlay on asphalt work.”

Messick also contends the KYTC needs a pavement selection process that is more balanced and transparent and that more actively takes into account lifecycle costs, maintenance costs and environmental factors such as heat reflectivity of the pavement surface.

But Wood argues the KYTC is already doing many of the things Messick suggests and that others aren’t required.

“They have a pavement-type selection process,” he said. “It’s spelled out in a document that’s on their website. … It looks at future maintenance costs. It looks at initial costs. It doesn’t take into account any environmental variables, but those are things that are not really quantifiable and those are not things that are really recommended by the (Federal Highway Administration).”

For his part, Messick doesn’t really expect things to change anytime soon. When it comes to state road paving projects, he calls the future outlook for the concrete industry “dismal.”

“Without a true commitment by … legislators and government officials for a healthy, competitive, two-pavement system, concrete pavement will continue to be an afterthought,” he said. “A healthy, two-pavement system in other states has been shown to actually help overall state road funding in the long run, which could help both industries.”

But Wood believes even with limited competition from the concrete industry, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and Kentucky taxpayers are still getting a good deal most of the time.

“Anytime (the KYTC does) a project, they have a secret engineer’s estimate,” he said. “So they establish what is, in fact, a fair price and if a bid comes in in excess of that amount, then they reject it. The (Department of Highways) has the ultimate veto power as far as pricing for any product, any industry, any project. In urban areas, there’s tons of competition even within the (asphalt) industry. Raw materials costs go up and somehow bid prices come down. You can’t even hardly explain it. Maybe people aren’t making money at it. But I think the taxpayers get a value and I think that the (Department of Highways) and (the engineer’s) estimate is that check valve that ensures that they’re always getting a fair price.”

Sean Slone is the Program Manager for Transportation Policy at The Council of State Governments in Lexington.

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