Part III of our Roads series.
This week on StateImpact NH: a three-part series on roads. Transportation funding is a big issue in the legislature this session. A fifteen-cent gas tax has gotten initial support in the House, and advocates of high stakes gambling in New Hampshire say a portion of the revenue from a casino would go directly into the state’s Highway Fund. But getting either proposal through both chambers will be a doozy. So, we’re digging into roads.
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Your car and pocketbook
Americans pay for bad roads twice. First, on car repairs– Granite Staters spend an average of $323 and as much as $500 annually on car costs due to driving on deteriorated roads, according to TRIP, a transportation trade organization.
Jeff White at Garry’s Service Center in Concord will tell you many of his customers end up with repairs totaling $1,000 in a given year. White says “when you go over a really big pothole, you can damage suspension parts and steering parts.” Frost heaves and potholes also cause a car’s wheels to go out of alignment. Then, White says, “the car will either drift right or left, and what that causes, besides a lot of annoyance, is it quickly wears tires.” Folks driving sports cars will likely have the most road-related damage, White says, including bent and broken rims.
But after those repairs are made, taxpayers pay for bad roads a second time – when they are finally rebuilt with gas tax and vehicle registration dollars. As NHDOT’s Bill Boynton says, a mile of a decently maintained road costs $50,000 to repave; but a mile of deteriorated road costs $1 million to reconstruct. While this may be a boon for auto mechanics and private paving companies with government contracts, poor roads are costly for businesses, governments and drivers.
When it comes to his business, Chuck Crawford, who owns high-tech manufacturer Kimball Physics in Wilton, “roads are critical.” Crawford says since Wilton and nearby Greenville often don’t have the money, his company repairs roads on the company budget. “We’ve done that a number of times,” he adds.
In fact, an industry magazine focusing on corporate real estate strategy found in 2009 that transportation infrastructure is the most important factor in location decision-making for corporate real estate executives. That’s followed by work force, taxes and utilities.
About $40 billion in goods are shipped in and out of New Hampshire, mostly by trucks and other courier services, according to the Bureau of Transportation Services. Minimizing traffic on major arterial roads is also important for businesses.
NHDOT’s Bill Boynton says, “there are definitely safety elements in adequately preserving and maintaining a highway system.” Roads that lack basic treatments, shoulders or rumble strips – as well as swerving to avoid potholes – can play a part in vehicle collisions.
“It is estimated that roadway features are likely a contributing factor in approximately one-third of fatal traffic crashes,” asserts TRIP, which ranks N.H.’s rural roads as 9th worst in the nation. The report also states that drivers are almost four times more likely to be involved in a fatal car crash on N.H.’s rural non-interstate roads than driving the same distance on all other N.H. roads.
Creative solutions in public works departments
Persistent stress on road infrastructure has forced public works programs to think creatively about road technology. At the state level, NHDOT has begun using a new kind of “cold mix paving,” in which workers lay down a thick layer of discarded pavement from other road projects that has been milled and emulsified, then topping it with a thin layer of the much more expensive hot mix asphalt. “You get a darn good road that way,” says Eric Thibodeau, NHDOT’s chief of pavement management. The cost of cold mix paving can be half of traditional paving, Thibodeau says, “and you’re using 100 percent recycled materials.”
Thibodeau says NHDOT also puts old tires in a hot paving mix and rubber pavement seal. This saves the state money, he says, and creates a longer lasting product.
Preparing roads for a hotter climate
At UNH, Civil Engineer Jo Daniel is collaborating with other engineers and climate scientists to understand infrastructure problems that may arise from climate change. She says public works departments choose their paving materials based on the weather conditions they expect to see.
Traditionally, departments would use historic weather information to choose their pavement. Now, Daniel says, “we need to use future projections rather than data from the last 20 years, which may be drastically different.”
Daniel says a paving design that will sustain more frequent flooding and higher temperatures will likely be more expensive than the pavement out there now. But, she says, the “life-cycle cost piece needs to be incorporated into decisions.”
Unfortunately, public works departments aren’t worrying much about climate change. These folks are just trying to figure out how to keep their roads passable today. NHDOT estimates that 37 percent of state-maintained roads and highways are considered in poor condition, a figure that is increasing by two percent every year.
Many towns are having an even harder time maintaining their roads, says Beth Hamilton at UNH’s Technology Transfer Center, which trains and supports municipal public works departments. Hamilton says towns are beginning to use Road Surface Management Systems that help workers prioritize paving projects.
Here’s how it works: public workers drive a town’s roads, gathering data about road quality. That data is then processed by a RSMS computer program, which creates a road maintenance plan based on variables such as how bad a road is, how much it will cost to repair it and how heavily the road gets used. Hamilton says this allows towns to get more bang for their buck.