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Local View / The long-lasting road ahead: pavement choices matter

From the column: "Minnesotans stand to benefit from smarter paving projects. ... It is important to acknowledge that the public pays the price for poor pavement conditions."

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Dave Granlund / Cagle Cartoons
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This summer, we’re watching several pavement projects that are being constructed to endure at least half a century of future traffic with minimal maintenance. Crews are at work in Duluth, Barnum/Moose Lake, and beyond. Last summer we saw the completion of the award-winning reconstruction of Superior Street in Duluth, a solid investment in the long-term performance of a vital community corridor. I’d also like to highlight the historic streets at Irving Place and East Clover Street, which are still going strong, with a memorial park recognizing the 115-year-old pavement.

Their secret ingredient for the pavement's designed longevity? Concrete — the most durable choice. New pavement can easily last more than 60 years. The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s own estimates find that the average service life of roads overlayed with concrete is 36 years before any repair is needed.

Minnesotans stand to benefit from smarter paving projects. When policymakers, MnDOT officials, county engineers, and public-works departments choose better pavement, it’s a much‐needed boost for our state’s highway system. A White House fact sheet states that 4,986 miles (out of a total of about 12,000 miles statewide) of highway in Minnesota are in “poor condition.”

It is important to acknowledge that the public pays the price for poor pavement conditions — in vehicle costs caused by rough roads, valuable time wasted in construction delays, and again as taxpayers responsible for inevitable reconstruction costs.

Road funding goes further with a longer-term approach. Quick estimates show MnDOT alone could save an estimated $150 million each year if our state highway system was built entirely from concrete — the equivalent of almost halving the department’s budget.

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Concrete pavement has significant sustainability benefits. The materials used — local sand and gravel aggregates — can be 100% recycled and reused and are not derived from petroleum. Many projects in Minnesota are using a new form of cement that is optimized for strength and is less carbon-intensive.

As we look into our state’s preparedness for volatile and uncertain impacts due to climate change, concrete roads are better prepared to withstand extreme flooding. Concrete retains its structural integrity when inundated by water. In many cases, roads can be returned immediately to pre-flood service.

Concrete adapts to extreme weather and extreme temperatures. Research on the urban heat island effect has shown that concrete’s natural lighter color absorbs less heat and can assist in lowering ambient air temperature by as much as seven to 10 degrees. Bonus: this reflectivity allows for more efficient highway lighting with one-third fewer light fixtures.

Recent high gas prices don’t reflect the hidden cost that bumpy roads significantly decrease your mileage per gallon. Sturdy concrete improves motorists’ mileage and reduces the overall carbon footprint of the transportation sector. By reducing rolling-resistance through a stiffer roadway, real environmental savings can be achieved.

For example, using concrete increases fuel efficiency by 3% to 7% for semi‐trucks (saving 40 gallons of fuel for every 1,000 miles driven). Similar fuel efficiencies are found in cars and light-duty trucks. We’ve done the math: For Minnesota’s interstates (900-plus miles), using all concrete pavement could annually save up to 24.5 million gallons of gas, save $75 million a year in fuel costs, and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from cars by more than 235,000 tons. That’s versus a system with solely asphalt. This is significant fuel savings, resulting in less air emissions.

The Concrete Paving Association of Minnesota understands that not all pavements can, or should, be focused on long life. But there are highways that should focus on long‐life pavements, such as interstates, four‐lane divided highways, and two‐lane corridors of commerce. These roads should easily be considered for long‐lived concrete pavement.

Minnesota can — and should — lead on efficient and safe road infrastructure, prioritize sustainability, and see savings for taxpayers.

Matthew J. Zeller is executive director of the Concrete Paving Association of Minnesota (concreteisbetter.com) in White Bear Lake.

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Matthew J. Zeller

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