May 28, 2018
Thin Profit Equals Thin Future
While preparing an article to outline how maritime regulations will affect liquid asphalt binder supply and cost next year, I noticed my opinion seeping in. It was time to bring the discussion to the editorial column where such things are allowed. Are we doing more harm than good when promoting thin overlays for existing pavements?
When I was in high school, I took private lessons from an elderly lady to hone my skill at playing the violin. Mrs. Connelly told me, “If you’re going to make a mistake, make it loud.” She taught me not to play timidly.
Right now, it is my personal opinion that the asphalt industry is being timid in its overuse of thin overlays. The main purpose of placing half an inch of material is to protect an underlying surface while stretching an agency’s pavement maintenance funds, of course. Couldn’t we also protect the underlying surface and provide “more” for the end user with two inches of material? It’s an upsell from a funding standpoint, but it’s a win down the road.
Let’s look at what else two inches of material offers. It offers more structure, more strength, more pavement life, more forgiveness for the new paving crewmembers (think realistically about the incoming workforce), more forgiveness of temperature differentials (both material and ambient) during paving, and the big point—more tons.
I recognize that the asphalt industry is exemplary in its use of recycled materials. We are a standard bearer for environmental sustainability. Our competition can’t hold a candle to us in the carbon footprint or urban heat island arenas.
At this point in time, our tonnages are down from the 400 million plus tons per year being produced and placed in the ’80s because the funding for work has been scarce out there (among other factors). When we get work, we too often place a thin version of what an agency could have. What are we thinking?
As 2018’s construction season began, most contractors were overwhelmed with work. It’s a bumper of a season already. The buzz on the street is this is “the busiest we’ve been in decades.” Like Fred the Baker meeting himself at the door, most contractors are making mix from dawn to dusk. OEMs are backed up with orders. Plants are running at capacity.
Estimators are pulling out their hair trying to keep up with bids and projects and measuring. All of that is great news for progress, and for getting roads and highways back up to safe standards for the end user. Let’s make sure we do it right with depths of lifts that allow nominal maximum aggregate sizes that support traffic for years to come, and that support suppliers and vendors investing in our industry for years to come.
The ramifications of underselling go deeper than merely having a plant close its doors due to lack of sales. When liquid prices skyrocketed in 2008, tonnages being placed dropped. Refiners reacted to that by changing their production. Let me repeat: refiners reacted. The suppliers of the liquid our industry must have access to change the way they do business. Are you ready to go into the business of refining heavy, sour crudes so you can have the proper residuals to make asphalt cement?
That’s a bolder move than even Mrs. Connelly would have proposed. But when we’re offering agencies less than what our industry could give them, we’re setting ourselves up for less down the road. Instead, we should be offering more tons in a competitive manner. A strong profit equals a strong future.
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