State of the Industry: Give them an increase in people

Steel prices are of little concern to contractors, who continue to face labor shortages

Bill Wilson / December 03, 2018
State of the Industry Survey

Rising steel prices are indeed on the minds of road and bridge contractors, but they are not smothering craniums giving them endless noogies like a nasty big brother. Playing that role would be the never-ending skilled labor crisis, which is now starting to ignore the screams of the builder.

Of course, throwing additional weight on the labor shortage is the fact that business continues to be good; work is flowing in most states, making it hard for contractors to fill positions. In the latest Roads & Bridges State of the Industry survey, 38% said business in 2018 was “very good,” and another 33% say it is “good.” It looks even better next year, as 47% expect a “very good” campaign with 28% believing it will be “good.” The American Road and Transportation Builders Association forecasted almost $193 billion in road and bridge construction activity in 2018, and is predicting a slight bump in 2019 at $199.2 billion.

“I would say business is good, but it’s not booming,” Brian Deery, senior director of highway and transportation for the Associated General Contractors of America, told Roads & Bridges. “I think it is a relatively flat market, but having the FAST Act in place really means a lot in terms of states are putting out bigger projects, more long-term projects whereas when we start getting into the reauthorization cycle, states really start cutting back and putting out a lot of paving and smaller projects.”

Roads & Bridges’ State of the Industry survey

Respondents to Roads & Bridges’ State of the Industry survey indicate that this year has been a strong year in road and bridge construction, and 2019 also looks good.

The reauthorization cycle is about to start again. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act runs into 2020, a time when the Highway Trust Fund could be teetering on a dangerous cliff. President Trump campaigned on doing more for infrastructure, but a massive tax cut was the focus of the last year, and the crosshairs were turned on China behind a number of tariffs, one of them dealing with steel. On the national scale, the steel tax has ramped up production at steel mills, but U.S. producers have used the tariff as an opportunity to raise the price of the material. Almost 40% of Roads & Bridges survey responders said the price of steel has gone up 6-10% in their area, and 56% said the reason behind the spike is a combination of things, including the steel tariff.

Deery, however, said most contractors had their prices in place before the steel tariff came into play, but there is some uncertainty heading into 2019.

“They are expecting prices to go up as we move forward,” he said.

Max Kuney, president of Max J. Kuney Co. which specializes in bridge, highway and transit work in the Pacific Northwest, acknowledged that accelerating the inflation in construction is going to be an issue, among other things.

“We certainly saw some major labor increases in the latest round of union negotiations in Seattle,” he told Roads & Bridges. “The amount of money available for construction did not go up so there is going to be some effect. There might be a project or two that falls out.”

2019 construction business year

Sound business

The Puget Sound region is booming with construction, and the Max J. Kuney Co. is enjoying the ride. However, there is a shift in how the money is being spent on the roads and bridges side following an increase in the state gas tax in 2015. Kuney recalled attending an Associated General Contractors of America meeting two years ago where the Washington State Department of Transportation made a presentation. A couple of pie charts told the story—about 25% of new projects from the tax increase would go towards design-build projects, but 75% of the total funding would be poured into those types of jobs. Megaproject activity also is on the rise, and the focus of Max J. Kuney Co., a mid-sized regional contractor, has been on joint ventures.

Max J. Kuney recently completed a four-year job on I-5 that involved the construction of two bridges over the expressway in Tacoma, Wash.

“There were a lot of traffic phases, a lot of night work, and it was challenging because there are frequent accidents there that have nothing to do with construction and the freeway is locked up for hours,” said Kuney.

ARTBA construction activity forecast

The American Road and Transportation Builders Association forecasted almost $193 billion in road and bridge construction activity in 2018, while predicting a slight bump in 2019 at $199.2 billion.

Construction of the Pacific Avenue bridge was especially complex due to a steep slope, and Kuney had to order some additional parts for their bridge paver in order to get the legs of the machine adjusted at the right level and make sure it could keep a level pour while it was climbing.

Work is currently being done on a light-rail project for Sound Transit that includes a 1,275-ft-long bridge over a wetland area. Installing the drilled shafts right up against the environmentally sensitive area has been a challenge.

“When you start doing that right next to a wetland area there are all kinds of opportunities for things to go wrong,” said Kuney.

Kuney took its work bridge sections used to cross rivers and stacked them three, four and even five high to create a solid platform for equipment during drilled-shaft activities. Precast girders are in place, and in mid-November work was being done on the diaphragms.

Urban, rural and interstate roads

More of the same

The Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) cannot get a handout from taxpayers. In November, a measure on the ballot that would increase taxes was soundly defeated. MoDOT has been trying to generate additional funding for decades now, with each effort failing.

Business has still been strong for Herzog Contracting Corp., which specializes in asphalt paving and, on a national level, rail and transit construction in Missouri.

“MoDOT has been spinning down some reserves to have a respectable program and to get matching federal funds, so it has been OK but they were counting on the gas tax to pass and provide a little wiggle room,” Kyle Phillips, vice president of civil construction at Herzog, told Roads & Bridges.

Steady work also appears to be the theme for Herzog in 2019, even though the commercial paving market has dried up in recent years. At the very worst Phillips sees a flat year over the next 12 months. “We have some jobs on the books that are good jobs,” he said. That does not include a couple of major highway construction jobs in Missouri and Kansas that Herzog was bidding on in mid-November.

At press time Herzog was wrapping up a $5 million, 8-mile job on I-35 in Harrison County, Mo., that involved an overlay and the replacement of rumble strips. According to Phillips, rumble strips have been deteriorating rapidly in northwest Missouri, and the job involved milling out the old strips and fixing them prior to laying down an overlay.

Earlier in the construction season work also was done on SH 36 close to Cameron, Mo. There crews executed a curve realignment and placed asphalt on 14 miles worth of a four-lane divided highway.

Steel prices do not come into play for Herzog, but a recent drop in crude oil may relax the price of liquid asphalt for the contractor. The cost of aggregates also is on the rise.

Poor bridge status

Will they find the time?

Since he was elected, President Trump has been talking about a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill that would include funding for roads and bridges. However, tax cuts came first and there simply was not enough time to pass anything more leading up to the November elections. The Trump administration has indicated that the infrastructure bill is again top of mind, but the Republican party lost control of the House of Representatives in November. With the Democrats calling the shots the focus could now turn to impeaching the president rather than helping the economy. Some also are skeptical that the Dems would be interested in handing President Trump a major victory like the passage of one of the largest infrastructure bills in history.

“Can they work in a bipartisan manner to fund it? I think they can write a highway bill today that everyone would love, but how do you pay for it? That is going to be the challenge,” said Kuney.

States, however, continue to make gains on the funding gap. On Nov. 6, voters in 31 states approved 79% of 346 state and local transportation ballot measures. The one everyone was watching was Proposition 6 in California. If approved, Caltrans would lose $5 billion in transportation funding annually. That measure was defeated by a 55%-45% count. Colorado, however, suffered a setback, as two measures to increase road, bridge and transit investment were soundly defeated. Proposition 109, a measure to provide one-time funding with a $3.5 billion bond, was rejected, as was Proposition 110, which would have increased the state sales tax by 0.62% for 20 years and provided an initial jumpstart with a $6 billion bond. The Colorado Department of Transportation estimates it is facing a $25 billion transportation funding gap over the next 25 years.

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About the Author

Wilson is editorial director of Roads & Bridges.

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