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Asphalt industry improving product, facing funding issues

There are several issues facing the asphalt pavement industry, but the executive directors of two state construction associations say the biggest one is the decrease in road projects by the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT). Both attribute this decrease to MDOT funding that’s being diverted to the state’s general fund.

“It’s terrible and has made a tremendous impact,” said Tone Garrett, executive director of the Mississippi Asphalt Pavement Association. “Some companies have already started the layoff process and those who are finishing work this fall have nothing on the books for next spring.”

He feels the portion of the gasoline tax that’s earmarked for road construction is equitable, one of the few users tax that’s fair to everyone. For this reason, state government has had a staggering amount of construction industry support in the past, but that could be changing.

“The asphalt association sent a letter to all elected officials asking that these funds be restored to MDOT to be used as they were intended,” Garrett said.

David Barton, executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association (MRBA), said, “ The biggest issue for my members is MDOT losing road funds and the potential lack of contracts being let out for bids. We know that Mississippi has a lot of financial needs but are hopeful the MDOT funding will be restored.”

Barton’s association has 160 member companies, some who use asphalt and some who use concrete in construction. Most members of the asphalt association are also members of MRBA.

Looking at the issues

“Asphalt is made here in Mississippi and should be looked at in a competitive light,” he said. “MDOT has to look at all issues and whether or not to use asphalt should be an engineering, design, cost analysis decision.”

Garrett, however, says asphalt is a superior product and should be used more than concrete in road construction.

“Asphalt comes from the ground here and is refined, marketed, sold and exported to other states,” he said. “You’d think we’d want to build with asphalt, a product we export.”

Additionally, he says that asphalt is quieter, smoother, safer and more dependable than concrete. “Asphalt is far quieter. It absorbs sound and concrete reflects it. That’s why they have to build sound walls in large cities,” he added.

“Asphalt is easier to maintain and extends the overlay period. It also helps eliminate rutting.”

For these reasons, he feels asphalt is a boon to the economy and has a longer life. It is also the most recycled product in America, outdoing paper and aluminum. Some recycled asphalt comes from old tires, but the whole tire cannot be used because of the steel and cords in them.

“Asphalt, which is a petroleum product, is the only reusable portion of a barrel of oil,” Garrett said.

Another issue for the asphalt association is the use of concrete for MDOT projects instead of asphalt. They are currently fighting the state’s decision to use concrete on a four-lane project in North Mississippi, Highway 304, which will be designated Interstate 69. Garrett says there is no Mississippi contractor who builds concrete roads.

Too late to change?

“The contract will be let in February and will be the largest portion of state construction funds available. With the state of the economy here, they’re giving it to an out-of-state contractor,” Garrett said. “We’re told it’s too far along to change to asphalt but we’re still fighting it.”

He says his association believes the project can be broken into four contracts instead of one. They think the state will have problems getting such massive amounts of cement.
The asphalt association would also like to get a piece of the action for the $80-million Mississippi River bridge and approaches to be built at Greenville. It will be the longest cable-span bridge in the nation.

“To prove our product, we built two test sections in Alabama, and the Mississippi asphalt pavements did as well or better than any products there,” Garrett said. “We’re making great strides with our product.”

He points out that 94% of the roads in America are surfaced with asphalt, although some are composites. In 2001, MDOT let bids for road projects using close to five million tons of asphalt. Last year, 2.41 million tons of asphalt were used.

“That decrease is due to lack of funding and fewer projects, and the use of concrete,” he said. “Also, the maintenance paving overlays that they have historically done have not been forthcoming. In some instances, they’ve found other ways to repair the road surfaces but sooner or later, we’ll cover it up.”

Garrett says he doesn’t know how many asphalt companies will survive. Several smaller family operations have already failed or consolidated. Those factors have brought the association’s membership down to 14 companies.

“The next few years could drastically shape the industry,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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