Few things are as irritating as taxes and rutted roads, and, for some, how well a local government minimizes both is the ultimate test of its performance. With that in mind, the Winona County Board faces a weighty question: concrete or asphalt?
County Engineer Dave Kramer raised the issue at the board's last meeting. Drawing on information from the Portland Cement Association and his own work, he asserted that, over 50 years' time, the county could save $355,000 per mile on paving projects by using concrete rather than asphalt, and suggested a pilot project. Commissioners agreed last week to seek bids for both types of pavement for an upcoming project on County Road 26, but were skeptical of Kramer's findings. This week the board reversed its stance on the County Road 26 project, asking for asphalt-only bids.
"Just by the information that was presented today from the Portland Cement Association, we're being led down the path that concrete is the way to go," said Commissioner Marcia Ward of Kramer's presentation last week. "We have a major asphalt provider [who] I think we should hear from too, especially before borrowing funds." After all, more durable grades of asphalt are available, too, she said. Perhaps the board should "have someone come in and give us the other side of the story," Ward added.
"Surprisingly, [the Portland Cement Association data] tracks pretty closely to the numbers we came up with," Kramer said. He added, responding to Ward, "If you invite the asphalt industry to come in here and give a presentation then I would recommend that you would do a balanced situation and invite concrete advocates to come in and give a presentation also. I'm not advocating one or the other; I'm trying to present balanced information. I work for you, I work for the taxpayers. We need to come up with a cost effective way to keep these roads in shape."
The county needs some strategy for road maintenance funding, Kramer said. The county spends $4 million on roads each year, though only $500,000 of that comes from the local property tax levy. Coincidentally, the county spends an average of $500,000 on sealcoating asphalt roads each year, according to Kramer. As it stands, the county does not fund enough miles of repaving per year to resurface county roads before their projected lifetime ends. "The pavements aren't lasting that long," Kramer told the board. To solve the problem, the county could raise taxes or return some roads to gravel, Kramer said, unpopular solutions he has raised in past years. Alternatively, if concrete can save money over time, it offers a third way, Kramer suggested.
Concrete vs. asphalt
The conventional wisdom is that concrete costs more upfront but lasts longer, while laying asphalt is less expensive but requires more upkeep. Whether the lower cost of repair and replacement for concrete overcomes its high initial cost and actually saves money in the long run is not clear. A lot depends on who you ask and how you do the math.
With websites like "ConcreteIsBetter.com" and slogans like "America rides on us: asphalt," industry groups on both sides highlight the benefits of their product and contradict criticisms. According to the Portland Cement Association, the price of asphalt has soared since 2007, and that price increase has tipped the scales of longterm cost analyses in favor of concrete.
Not so, asphalt supporters counter. Numerous studies show that asphalt is significantly cheaper in the long run, according to the National Asphalt Paving Association (NAPA).
Both industries make numerous ancillary arguments. Roads have to be closed more often to sealcoat asphalt, but new concrete ought to cure for days before handling traffic. Ice melts more rapidly from asphalt, but concrete is less slippery when wet, according to industry statements. Concrete groups cite a study showing that vehicles get better gas mileage by rolling on rigid concrete roads, as opposed to "squishy" asphalt. Asphalt groups cite a study showing that vehicles get better mileage by rolling on a "smooth ribbon" of asphalt rather than on rough concrete.
Last week, Commissioner Jim Pomeroy questioned estimates of concrete's longevity presented by Kramer. The county engineer estimated that with minor repairs, concrete roads could last 50 years, while asphalt roads would need to be resurfaced twice in a half century.
Concrete does not last that long without repair, Ward responded. "Not in Southeast Minnesota," She said. "I'm sorry, I've had a lot of personal experience with concrete. Concrete can really vary [depending on] when it was poured, what the conditions were when it was poured, who poured it." The hills and rills of Winona County may not be the best location for brittle pavement, she added. Kramer noted that hilly Wabasha County has invested in concrete pavement.
"If this was a personal investment on my own property, I would clearly go with concrete. No doubt about it," said commissioner Steve Jacob last week. "If I was just thinking about the election process and what would get me reelected, people probably are going to look at how good their roads are now." The short-term savings of asphalt are politically convenient, he suggested, "but I have to look at what's best for the [next] 50 years, not for the election process."
Regardless of which pavement is best, the board reasoned that a "dual bid" was likely to encourage "some pencil sharpening," by contractors, as commissioner Marcia Ward put it. According to county staff, Dunn Blacktop is usually the sole bidder for asphalt paving projects in Winona County.
Board: asphalt only, for now
This week, the board rescinded its informal directive to seek "dual bids" for the County Road 26 project. With Commissioners Pomeroy and Ward citing concerns about the upfront cost of concrete even if it proves to be cheaper in the long run, the board agreed in a 4-1 vote to seek asphalt-only bids. Commissioner Greg Olson opposed the motion. Under the scrapped plan, the county would have sought bids for both concrete and asphalt, the bids would have been adjusted based on a life-cycle cost analysis for each material, and the county would have been obligated to accept the low bidder after adjustment — regardless of which material it proved to be — or reject all bids and rebid the project. County Administrator Duane Hebert advised that the board could decide to reject all bids and rebid the project for asphalt only, if it so desired.
"If we set up the life-cycle cost analysis correctly [the adjusted low bidder] will be our life-cycle lowest cost," saving the county money in the long run, Kramer said, just prior to the vote against conducting an analysis.
"But we don't have life-cycle funding," countered Ward.
"I really like the idea of life-cycle costing, but anything can happen over 30 to 40 years," Pomeroy said. "I think the concern is that the upfront cost may be a little too steep." He moved to seek an asphalt only bid for the project. Jacob, Valentine, and Ward supported him.
"I appreciate having alternatives and being able to look at alternatives," Olson said. Like other proposed changes to county operations such as surveyor position, "if we keep doing what we've been doing, we're just going to be where we are and not moving forward," Olson said.
"Down the road we certainly want to do the best thing we can for our taxpayers," Jacob said. "I'd like that competition [for paving projects]." The board agreed by consensus it was open to considering dual bids for future road projects.