Posted by: Deb Henry | 11/18/2009

Highway lane closures are a GOOD thing… really.

One of the things that I see complained about frequently is how the DOT is trying to make everyone’s life more difficult by closing lanes.  They “play” with the surface of the roads, only to re-open the next day with little to show on the surface for what they have been doing.  I assure you no one at the DOT is trying to make your life more difficult.  Road and bridge maintenance is a critical and economical way to make sure the quality of the infrastructure we have already invested in stays in good condition in order to cost tax payers less money in the long run.

Roads are made up of several layers of material, the bottom layer being a dense dirt-like material compacted in order to lay the asphalt on top of.  When the asphalt deteriorates, the foundation of the road starts to be undermined and lose its structural capacity.  It is difficult and expensive to fix this foundation layer once it is compromised. Instead, if the shell of the road, the asphalt, or concrete as it may be, is maintained and taken care of, the road will be usable decades longer and save the tax-payers an expensive replacement cost to fix the entire structural system.

Bridges are similar, in that if the buffer course, or driving course (that the public sees) is taken care of, the reinforcing system (the bodily organs) of the bridge will be safe in the gut of the bridge. The unfortunate case arises when the surface course is allowed to deteriorate so that the reinforcing steel  is permeated via cracks and exposed to the salt and water solutions that keep the roads safe in the winter.  This causes the steel reinforcement to rust and the bridge loses it’s ability to work as designed. There are expensive ways to go in and remove small sections of deterioration, but when the problem is overwhelming, it often makes more sense to replace the bridge in its entirety, costing the taxpayers unnecessary money. Example: sealing your bathtub to prevent water from rotting out the walls or leaving a bike out in the rain for a year.

There are many types of renewals for roads and bridges such as crack sealing (to prevent moisture from getting into the underbelly of the road), asphalt overlays (adds a perceived smoothness to the traveler and a protective layer), as well as pothole fixes and other spot treatments.  I assure you these treatments are exceedingly cheaper than the replacement of the road or bridge as a whole when the underbelly is in too poor of a condition to fix. Think if it as the difference between paying off your credit card balance in full every month versus declaring bankruptcy.

One of the most important reasons these maintenance treatments are so important is because what is happening in the belly of the bridge is often difficult to tell from the outside. You can make educated guesses as to the level of deterioration, but often cannot known how much of the structural capacity of the steel is still functioning until the guts of the structure are opened up to a trained human eye.

Unfortunately, politicians aren’t elected on whether or not an older local road was crack-sealed, but they are elected on the glamor of whether they can attach their name to a BRAND NEW project.  The lifetime of a politician is short in comparison to the decades a bridge or roadway can live. There is no sexiness factor to making sure the infrastructure in good condition stays in good condition. Especially vexing is how a DOT is expected to maintain said new section of roadway when the funding to maintain the whole system already seems to be less each fiscal year. Politicians will shout and argue about transportation funding and tax increases unless they can earmark some new construction to their own district. Only then are they willing to cough up the cash. Even more upsetting is when the DOT is at the mercy of said legislature as to whether or not they are given money at all.  Difficult decisions have to be made in order to keep the legislature happy for the following year/election and at the same time take care of the maintenance side of everyday life.  While this happens, our infrastructure falls sicker and sicker.

“In the wake of the 2007 collapse of Minnesota’s I-35 bridge, Washington policymakers vowed a renewed focus on repairing the nation’s aging infrastructure. But weeks after the fatal collapse, Congress approved a transportation spending bill with 704 earmarked projects, at a total cost topping $570 million — and just 11 percent of those earmarks went towards bridge repair, according to a new report released today.”

Please keep this in mind when you are electing your representation or stuck in traffic due to some maintenance work. Be happy we have any maintenance money at all.


EDIT: Just found this article from the New York Times and it adds to this story.

“The answers to these and many other related questions will depend to a great extent on decisions we make now (even in the midst of very tough economic times) about the American infrastructure. We’re trundling along in the infrastructure equivalent of a jalopy, with bridges rotting and falling down, while other nations, our competitors in the global economy, are building efficient, high-speed, high-performance infrastructure platforms to power their 21st-century economies.”



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