I am writing in response to Gerald Voigt’s “Right Choice, Right Now” column in the November issue of Concrete Progress and would like to set the record straight on behalf of the asphalt industry.
Voigt’s piece appears to be based on the assumption that the high price of oil has led to a permanent situation in which the price of asphalt pavement will be high—perhaps as high as, or even higher than, concrete pavement. Another assumption is that shortages experienced in 2008 will become a permanent part of the scene as well.
Since the article was written, however, crude has declined from $147 a barrel to around $41. Most oil industry analysts predict that the price will range from $50 to $80 for the next several years. Worldwide demand for petroleum products also has declined. The current facts on the ground, therefore, contradict his arguments.
But even if prices had stayed at their 2008 level, it is our belief that most agencies would continue to prefer asphalt. Why? Because asphalt is the better pavement. It’s faster to construct, easier and less expensive to maintain, more cost-effective over its entire life cycle, more reusable/recyclable, smoother, quieter and more durable.
Only an asphalt highway can be renewed by milling and resurfacing at off-peak hours, with no need to keep the pavement closed for curing. Also, bear in mind that liquid asphalt is about 5.5 to 6% of the pavement mix, and often 20% or more of this binder is obtained from reclaimed asphalt.
Because of the way we design and build asphalt roads, they can provide perpetual pavements—roads that can stay in place indefinitely with all the distresses confined to the surface.
At some point, a concrete road is going to reach the end of its useful life. When that happens, the alternatives are often massive rehabilitation, which is very time-consuming for road users and expensive for agencies; complete removal and replacement, again, very time-consuming for road users and expensive for agencies; or rubblization with asphalt overlay—the fast, less-expensive option in which the old concrete road is broken into rubble and left in place as the new roadbed.
When specifiers choose concrete for new construction, they know that in many cases in the future it will become, at best, the base for a new asphalt road. So concrete isn’t just expensive today—it’s an economic problem for future generations.
Another aspect that Voigt’s piece ignores is the run-up in prices in his own industry. The prices of all construction materials are very sensitive to energy prices. This is true of portland cement, asphalt cement, steel and aggregate. The price of portland cement has tracked the growth in energy prices, since the production of cement is highly fuel-intensive. International demand also has had a direct impact on the price and supply of cement, which typically makes up about 8% of concrete. I’m sure your readers have had personal experience of this.
When times are tough, that’s when all of us in the pavement industry need to work with our partners at government agencies—our customers—on strategies that will help us continue to deliver the best possible transportation systems for the traveling public at the lowest possible cost.
I am proud to say that NAPA has an extensive track record of partnering with FHWA, AASHTO, the state DOTs and academia. Long before the 2008 construction season, NAPA was working with these groups in the Reclaimed Asphalt Pavement (RAP) Expert Task Group and the Warm-Mix Asphalt (WMA) Technical Working Group. Both reuse/recycling and warm mix offer us ways to actually improve the pavements used by the public while lowering the cost.
I challenge the American Concrete Pavement Association to put aside its attempts to capitalize on temporary circumstances—circumstances that have already changed—and join us on Capitol Hill as we work with Congress and the new administration on legislation that could have a positive impact on both our industries. A well-funded highway program would put Americans back to work while strengthening the surface transportation system that this country’s economic might is built on.