Cleaning service

April 2, 2009

Arnold Schwarzenegger is still considered by many as a man of steel, but that does not mean it is impossible to bend his ear.

Tom Brown, president of Sierra Pacific West Inc., a medium-sized highway contractor in San Diego, Calif., has attempted to pull out the verbal pliers on the celebrity California governor regarding the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) new emission standards on off-road diesel engines. The move is forcing contractors that have machines blackening the skies to either retrofit or buy new models altogether.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is still considered by many as a man of steel, but that does not mean it is impossible to bend his ear.

Tom Brown, president of Sierra Pacific West Inc., a medium-sized highway contractor in San Diego, Calif., has attempted to pull out the verbal pliers on the celebrity California governor regarding the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) new emission standards on off-road diesel engines. The move is forcing contractors that have machines blackening the skies to either retrofit or buy new models altogether.

While serving as president of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) Brown had the opportunity to talk to Gov. Schwarzenegger. The big-screen terminator has had his crosshairs locked on clean air since taking the oath of office, and when Brown moved with him up and down the California coast selling the leader’s initiatives, voters had just approved a $2.1 billion infrastructure tax bill.

“I told him he was not going to build as many projects as he thought,” he told Roads & Bridges. “He said, ‘Why is that?’ I said it was because you are going to force the contractors to comply with clean air standards, and they are going to have to put the money back into the equipment. I don’t think he got that.”

Just about every American has received the message of the green movement by now. There are green roofs, green businesses and green pavements. The road and bridge industry was a silent partner in the recycling movement for years before the Green Revolution made its massive charge. However, talk has turned more serious. It’s all about reducing the carbon footprint, and those laying down asphalt or managing traffic have been asked to be the transportation podiatrists of the movement.

Engine overhaul

CARB began work on its new emission standards in 2005, and at the time were not taken too seriously by contractors across the region. The fresher air approach did anything but tickle the nose of the construction world when it became official in June 2008, and originally those in violation had until 2010 to comply. However, with the recent passing of the state budget in California, lawmakers were able to massage CARB into extending the deadline to 2013. The board also allowed credits, dated as far back as 2006, to be issued to contractors who were being proactive about the measure. Still, the consequences of such a movement could be paralyzing.

According to the rule, those owning large fleets of off-road diesel equipment (exceeding 5,000 hp) must meet average fleet emissions standards for particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. Every piece of machinery must be registered with CARB, and those in compliance will receive a sticker (effective April 1) that must be displayed prominently in case an inspector decides to check a fleet yard. CARB initially estimated the cost to retrofit or replace engines that were not in compliance to be $3.5 billion. However, AGC and California’s construction industry have put the price at a wind-knocking $13 billion.

“At the end of the day I think the real question you have to ask is what if the economy does not turn around as quickly as we all would like it to be? Then I think you are going to see a lot of people who say, ‘you know what? I am done’ and they are going to check out,” said Brown.

Brown, however, believes he is going to weather the change, but it is going to make a victim out of the ultimate dream. Sierra Pacific West, which has been in business for 25 years, is a dirt mover in the highway industry that carries a little over 100 pieces of equipment. CARB’s talk of tougher standards four years ago struck a chord with Brown, who always took a great deal of pride in owning his equipment.

“We are one of those fortunate contractors that put the investment back into our company,” he said. “[The CARB ruling] forced me to take a good look in the mirror.”

What Brown saw staring back at him was the reality of leasing and renting equipment that was in compliance, because buying all new machines would run the company $56 million. Retrofitting is out, because the devices currently on the marketplace create safety issues in terms of visibility.

“I think a lot of contractors will make that decision [of leasing and renting] and say, ‘OK, now we have an applicable machine that is compliant and we are willing to make that investment.'”

Contractors like Brown want to color the sky blue with exhaust-capping technology, but most did not like the steps that were taken to achieve greener pastures.

Brown would have preferred a tax investment credit. However, CARB does not have the authority to work those in.

“I don’t think any of us is opposed to clean air, we just need a mechanism that helps us get there.”

What could be detrimental to a business is the way CARB has talked about enforcing this ruling. As mentioned earlier, every contractor must supply the serial number of each machine and engine to CARB, and if bookkeeping is poor, oversights could surface. The rumor is that fines could be as high as $10,000 a day, retroactive to the time of violation. So if an inspector comes to a yard a full year after the rules were activated, a contractor could be looking at a $365,000 fine.

The poor economy has been a contractor’s only friend during this clean-air process. Due to the lack of work, less machines are running out on the jobsite. If a piece of equipment is idle it does not count against a contractor’s horsepower output.

“The construction industry is $22 billion smaller than when [CARB] originally made their proposal,” Brian Deery, AGC, told Roads & Bridges. “Emission levels are down, the hours worked are down, consumption of off-road diesel is down. They’ve gotten the reduction they were looking for just through a natural selection process.”

There is some form of relief for contractors, but it is small. The Diesel Emissions Reduction Act offers $300 million to businesses trying to comply. It did receive a raise in the recent stimulus bill, but does not come close to filling the bill.

“I can name you five contractors off the top of my head that have equipment that would require more than that $300 million,” said Deery.

Brown fears the mega contractors could open a reign of Godzilla-like terror on the market. National and global giants like Kiewet could afford to replenish entire fleets with new machines and could take over the California landscape.

“It almost is like an unfair advantage that could potentially take place,” said Brown.

The CARB ruling also could go national. Several states look to California to set the standard when it comes to the environment, and the Environmental Protection Agency could get involved, which would touch hundreds of thousands of contractors nationwide.

“We fully anticipate [the EPA] is going to permit it,” said Deery.

Brown, however, will still be there when the day is done.

“I want to pass the company on to my son, who is here now. It is interesting times, but there is a better way to build a mousetrap and we will figure it out,” he said.

Hot rails, HOT lanes

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), serving the San Francisco-Oakland Bay area, believes it has just the right gadget. It recently released its Draft Transportation 2035 Plan, which will devote $226 billion to confront global warming and traffic congestion.

About 80% of MTC’s expenditures in the long-range plan will be devoted to simply operating and maintaining the existing network. Not much will go toward genuine expansion, which always turns the green advocates red.

“Most of our expansion money is going to public transit, which should have a positive impact on the carbon footprint, and the centerpiece of our highway expansion strategy will come from our HOT-lane network,” Steve Heminger, executive director of the MTC, told Roads & Bridges. “We believe that will be a carbon positive because it will be speeding up some traffic.”

Alameda and Santa Clara counties have set the example for MTC’s HOT-lane approach, according to Heminger. Alameda has two HOT-lane networks under construction on I-680 and I-580, and Santa Clara has two more that are nearing the construction phase. Alameda and Santa Clara is where some of the worst traffic congestion in California takes place.

Fueling the HOT-lane approach is a process called “rapid delivery.” Partnering with Parsons Brinckerhoff, MTC came up with the idea to take advantage of as much right-of-way space as possible. To execute the entire endeavor, which involves converting 400 miles of right-of-way and building another 400, will cost $4 billion, and some segments, like I-880 in Alameda County and Rte. 101 on the peninsula north of the San Francisco airport, will be very expensive to handle.

The Bay area, however, is self-sufficient when it comes to funding.

About two-thirds of the money comes locally from the state sales tax, the gas tax and the tolls gathered from the eight bridges in the region.

Some of Transportation 2035 will be fed with stimulus money. In fact, $500 million was already spent a week after President Obama signed the bill into law, and Heminger is hoping more is on the way. On the public transit side, the MTC is ordering the construction of a new Trans

Bay Terminal—dubbed “Grand Central Station West”—which will carry high-speed rail as well as commuter trains and bus service. There also is a BART extension to San Jose, the largest city in northern California, in the works along with bus rapid transit improvements and a new ferry service.

City greenery

Materials used to build roads also are being environmentally scrubbed. In late February, Rep. Russ Carnahan introduced the bipartisan Green Streets Act of 2009 to reduce the cost of road building. The bill is designed to reduce those costs by investing in a program to measure the feasibility of making asphalt from biomass.

The alternative modifiers “can be a whole host of things—yard clippings, manure, wood chips; the options are almost limitless,” Jim Hubbard, spokesman for Carnahan, told Roads & Bridges. “It is going to be up to the researchers to look into it and go with what is feasible.”

Carnahan is hoping to gather more support for the measure before determining a next step, but the interest level on Capitol Hill appears to be there.

“We obviously want to create jobs and reinvest in America, and this [measure] is a two-fer in that sense,” said Hubbard.

The asphalt industry is already seeing a second coming of the product in the form of green asphalt patching material. One company based out of New York, called GreenPatch, offers a product that contains anywhere from 40% to 60% recycled material and biodegradable, renewable solvents, described by Glenn Shapiro, a product manager for GreenPatch, as “plant-based oils.” Quikrete also carries similar offerings.

“During the warmer months we could get as high as 60% recycled material in the mix, but during the winter months we have to cut it down a bit,” said Shapiro.

GreenPatch already has contracts with the New York City DOT and the West Chester County, N.Y., DOT, and is in the process of expanding into the upper Midwest market to cover Chicago, Indiana and Wisconsin.

One of the clients GreenPatch and others are trying to court is the Chicago DOT. Cindy Williams, quality assurance manager for CDOT, has been flooded with sample sizes over the last few weeks, but some questions have surfaced. The consistency of the product is the primary concern.

“With the high-performance patch that we use currently, the one thing we know is that when it is produced it is consistently produced,” Williams told Roads & Bridges. “We know the raw materials, we know what is in it.”

A lot of the green patches also come in bags, which do not fit well with city crews. Williams said some suppliers were willing to provide the material in bulk.

Chicago, however, already has the green machine working up to full speed. Two years ago, the city began a pilot project called the Green Alley Program, which uses a number of different environmentally friendly initiatives. The main component is permeable pavements, which come in the form of pavers, concrete or asphalt. Most times the pavement and natural subgrade aids in storm-water drainage, but there have been some instances where an underground trench has been constructed in the center of an alley before pavement is laid on top of it. There have been approximately 50 alleys “greened” via the program, just a speck of the city’s 1,900 miles of back roads. However, more alleys will be treated, and some may not even be suitable for permeable pavements because of poor soil conditions. According to CDOT spokesman Brian Steele, those areas farther away from Lake Michigan carry more clay, which is a foe to drainage.

“The goal is not to replace every single alley, but every time we have an opportunity to do a permeable pavement solution we explore that,” said Steele.

The pinnacle of CDOT’s green program is on the horizon. According to Steele, the city will be embarking on a sustainable streetscape along Cermak Road and Blue Island. There, the agency hopes to combine permeable pavements, recycled materials and warm-mix asphalt (WMA) applications. CDOT has been using as much as 30% reclaimed asphalt pavement (RAP) in its mixes, and according to Williams there was an arterial street project that went as high as 45% RAP. Ground-tire rubber also has been used as a modifier.

Chicago applied its first WMA back in November 2008. It was a one-day production entailing less than 1,000 tons, but the city plans to revisit the site in the spring and hopes to do more WMA projects in the future.

The problem has been with the Illinois DOT, which is the authoritative agency that generates the specifications CDOT utilizes. IDOT has only recently opened its eyes to the promise of WMA and ground-tire rubber, but Williams expects to see an official specification soon.

The influx of stimulus money also might encourage more green construction in a city that has such a strong Irish backing it considers St. Patrick’s Day one of the biggest holidays of the year.

“We are looking at the entire gamet of infrastructure projects that the stimulus money would be applied to,” said Steele. “That includes the expansion of some of our ongoing green efforts like the Green Alley Program and recycled materials.”

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