Economy puts the brakes on road repairs

October 13, 2008 4:47:24 PM PDT
New Yorkers weathering the national economic downturn can expect another sort of rough ride as state and local highway managers rework road construction plans, scaling back or postponing projects ranging from bridge reconstruction to road resurfacing They blame tight budgets, rising inflation and the high price of oil, which has driven up the cost of asphalt, the key ingredient in sealing roadways to keep out pothole-causing moisture. Asphalt, also known as blacktop, is derived from crude oil, and its cost has been rising so far and fast that it is busting some highway construction and maintenance budgets.

"The price has quadrupled in the last six months or so, and in some cases there have been shortages," said A.J. Castelbuono, president of the Associated General Contractors of New York.

"That's something that just wasn't anticipated."

Managers at the New York State Thruway Authority - who rely heavily on toll money to pay for construction and maintenance - said this month they're putting off $250 million worth of planned projects. They blamed rising construction costs and a decrease in toll-paying drivers.

The Thruway's scaled back roadwork plans come just months after officials there approved a new series of toll hikes they said were needed to pay for the work. Projects taken out of the plans through 2011 include replacing toll barriers and rebuilding and resurfacing roadways and bridges.

The problem is spreading beyond the 641-mile superhighway, though. State and county project planners, facing the same rising costs and an uncertain outlook for future funding, are backing off of some previously planned roadwork.

Planners at the New York State Department of Transportation who had 325 projects in the works are expecting to pull 30 of them from this year's plan. That's because the $1.7 billion they had to work with in this year's budget isn't going as far as expected, said Carol Breen, an agency spokeswoman.

Budget managers are still figuring out which projects will have to be postponed and expect to have a list in the next few weeks, Breen said.

"We're definitely scaling back, we just don't know exactly where yet," she said.

So-called "megaprojects" - such as the rehabilitation of the Alexander Hamilton Bridge and Highbridge Interchange Ramps on the Cross Bronx Expressway and the reconstruction of a stretch of Route 17 between exits 116 and 121 in Orange County - won't be affected.

But state highway managers will likely defer other types of routine work, including plans to resurface 670 miles of road throughout the state. "We're going to have to scale that down," Breen said.

Roadwork contractors have noticed a big difference this year, Castelbuono said.

The typical flurry of notices about upcoming contracts for work that needs to be done before the cold weather sets in has been conspicuously absent, he said.

"We can't figure out exactly what they're trying to do," Castelbuono said. "When you delay letting a project by a week or two, you don't just lose a week or two - especially at this time of year."

Less road resurfacing this fall is likely to mean more potholes next spring.

That's because potholes are caused by snow melt and rainwater that seep through cracks in the road surface to the underlying dirt and gravel. As the water freezes and thaws, it weakens a section of the road and ultimately causes a pothole.

County highway managers are scrambling to get their roads in good shape for the winter as well, but most are scaling back their plans or finding other ways to cut costs, said James Brady, president of the New York State County Highway Superintendents Association.

"Everyone's in the same boat," said Brady, who is Wayne County's highway superintendent. "If your budget last year allowed you to do one mile, this year with the higher costs its about a half mile."

With higher costs and stagnant budgets, county highway managers are being forced to cut back their maintenance and construction or find less costly ways to do the work, Brady said.

In Livingston County, Highway Superintendent Don Higgins said his crews are doing a little bit of both.

On major reconstruction projects there, workers used a method known as chip sealing - which sprays a light layer of asphalt over a layer of crushed stone - instead of the more expensive hot mix asphalt, Higgins said.

"It's not as long lasting, and its noisier because the surface has the stones exposed," he said. "But it seals the roadway, which is the most important part."

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