The people's voice of reason

Building Better Roads

Every year, we continue to hear the same old song from our public officials—“Our infrastructure is falling apart…. We need more revenue…. We must have a tax increase.” The rational answer, of course, is “No way” in nearly every case. Most of the time they ask for money to fund projects and programs that are patently unconstitutional—“public” education, “public” housing, Medicaid, victimless crime enforcement, abusive regulations, etc.

But among these is one item we actually need—our roads and bridges. There are some things that can be done to improve them. Some would, of course, require additional funding. But there are others that would require very little, or none at all.

Let’s begin by eliminating needless frills. One problematic and costly example on the interstates is the installation of guardrails in the medians. Ostensibly, they are put in to prevent out of control vehicles from crossing the medians and hitting oncoming traffic. In a few places they might be necessary, but most of the time the medians are adequately wide to minimize that likelihood. These guardrails can be very problematic when a wreck blocks the road and the traffic behind it is unable to cross over to the other side to get to an exit.

Some improvements can be implemented with very little or no cost. One chronic problem is the timing of traffic signals. In state after state, I have observed inadequate green on the main roads and excessive green on side roads and unnecessary protected left turns. Lights should not change unless traffic trips them. They should not change instantly as soon as one car comes, but should wait long enough (about 15 or 20 seconds) so two or three can come out on one change.

Protected left turns should exist only where a great deal of traffic makes a left turn. NO protected left turn should trip when no vehicle is present. And all left turns should be equipped with a circular green or flashing yellow arrow to allow turning when oncoming traffic has cleared.

And finally, many signals can be put on flash during all but peak traffic hours.

When plans are made to build a new road, we must always ask ourselves is it really necessary. In some cases it might be, but many others have later proven to be schemes to enhance the property values of certain politicians and/or their friends with new highways that have far less value than their costs.

A good example is Montgomery’s outer loop. Public persuaders fought a hard battle claiming that it would divert a great deal of traffic from the congested southern and eastern bypasses. Now after over two decades of construction, many millions of dollars in expenditures, and thousands of acres of farmland destroyed, the relief has been minimal. It is just too far away to be used by the majority of people.

I personally attended a couple of public meetings that took place when the loop was being planned. I suggested that instead of building the loop, why not improve the existing bypasses around Montgomery by widening them as needed, building the necessary viaducts and service roads, and making them controlled access like the interstates? I also asked a couple of the engineers how the cost would compare to the cost of the new loop. They admitted it would be about a third as much. They also hinted that they might do it someday.

But of course, they opted for the loop instead. That was their plan, and they were not going to change their minds. To them, their juicy contracts had far more value than performing public services for the people. Today our bypasses are as congested as ever.

Another problem we have is shoddy construction. For starters, a good road base must be made of a properly graded, well compacted mixture of gravel, sand and clay—several feet thick in some cases. If this is not done, the pounding of heavy trucks will destroy the pavement even if it is adequately applied.

The mixture and application of asphalt pavement is critical. If the weather is cold or wet, or if the mixture is not sufficiently heated before application, it will fail in a short time. It must be thoroughly compacted while still hot to avoid voids or “honeycomb.” And finally, the mix must be a precise blend of sand, gravel and asphalt of proper proportions. Professors at the University of Alabama have studied many examples of the mixes and observed that the asphalt content in nearly every case was at the bare minimum, not the optimum.

Even when properly applied, asphalt pavements have a typical life of only about eight years. After that time, the roads must be re-surfaced. It is not only costly, but it also imposes serious delays while flag men block traffic in both directions. Motorists must wait 30 minutes or more for their turns through one-lane stretches of three to five miles.

If built correctly, concrete roads last far longer. I have on very rare occasions traveled on concrete roads built in the 1930’s and 40’s that were still surprisingly smooth after over 50 or 60 years of pounding by heavy trucks. As a sharp contrast, I have experienced a great deal of roughness on many brand new concrete interstates. When riding in a heavy truck, this roughness is very pronounced and can without question illustrate that the road is being battered to pieces. The question I am compelled to ask is, “how were road builders able to make concrete roads smooth years ago, but cannot do the same today?”

We must also take a look at how roads are being built in Europe and particularly in Germany. Our interstates were modeled after the autobahns, but our standards fall far short of theirs. Their curves usually have greater radii, and grades are limited to only 2% in most areas, except in the mountains where they Zcan go as high as 4%. Some of our interstates have grades of up to 8%, necessitating runaway truck ramps in many places. Our interstate pavement thickness is typically 8 to 11 inches. In Germany, an autobahn pavement is 27 inches of solid concrete, and the surface is always smooth and lasts for many years, oblivious to the heavy trucks and 200 mph traffic.

Of course, building roads like this would cost more initially, but once built, their long term maintenance is much, much less, and the obnoxious roadblocks now needed for resurfacing would be much less frequent.


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