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Hot In-place Road Construction Reduces Costs and Climate Impact

Road construction and reconstruction contributes to climate change and pollution -- but there are new alternatives for highway contractors and local governments.

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Article contributed by: Derek Singleton, Software Advice, a software review website

I recently decided to look into how we build our roads. We hardly ever think about it, but building our roads is one of the most environmentally - and economically - taxing things we do. Our roads system connects us to everywhere we want or need to go. If you're going on a trip, chances are that you're taking a road to get there. As Shane Stathert of Think Green Roads put it:

"Our roads are everywhere. Anywhere you turn, you automatically on a road. We can't get away from them. We step outside of our house and we're on a road. If we go to a National Park, we take a road. People don't realize this but [building roads] is one of the highest impact things we do."

That's an apt observation. Every year we spend roughly 7% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on building or repairing our transportation infrastructure. In 2010, that was roughly $1 trillion. But the costs don't end there. It's estimated that roughly 38,760,000 tons of CO2 are emitted from building our roads every year. That's the same emissions as 6 million homes over an entire year.

Are Recycled Materials A Good Asphalt Substitute?

We obviously need to find more sustainable ways of building our roads and highways. Actually, some very innovative ideas have arisen out of the green construction movement. One of the ideas leading the pack in green roads construction is using recycled construction materials as aggregate for an asphalt base. Construction companies are starting to grind up things like old rubber tires, roofing shingles, and even glass to us in our roads.

These are fairly sensible ideas. They take something that would otherwise sit in a landfill somewhere and make a positive use out of it. A single lane mile of road will use up to 2,000 tires that would have otherwise sat around as trash and act as a breeding ground for disease carrying mosquitoes. This really helps cut down on trash. The only problem is that these methods aren't proven. There are other methods that have been tested in a total lifecycle analysis and yet they aren't getting the attention they need or deserve.

Better Technologies Are Being Held Back: Hot In-place Recycling

We currently have the technology to recycle our roads 'in place' without having to use much additional asphalt. This method is called hot in-place recycling. Compared to normal road construction, this hot in-place recycling reduces greenhouse emissions by 60% and material usage by more than 80%. It's great economically and environmentally. But this method is underutilized and relatively unknown. So what's keeping us from doing more of this green road construction?

It turns out that there's an archaic contracting system in place that prevents us from using this method more. It's called "cost-plus" pricing. Never heard of it? I hadn't either until I did my homework. It works like this:

A while back, contractors negotiated to have all their road projects funded through a contract that pays them for the price of their labor and the price of the asphalt. Under this system, contractors that use more asphalt are paid more. In effect, there's no incentive use a more sustainable method that requires less asphalt. Since our tax dollars pay for most road construction, we're the ones taking the hit in the pocket book. This system is unsustainable environmentally and economically and we need to do something to repair it quickly.

North Carolina Leads Road Construction By Example

Currently, there is only one state that has scrapped this archaic contracting system. That state is North Carolina. Coincidentally, North Carolina is the state that uses hot in-place recycling the most. It's also the state where road construction is the cheapest. Consider this, in British Columbia, the cost of road construction is $25/sq. Meter. In North Carolina, the cost is $19/sq. Meter. Clearly getting rid of this system is in the publics best interest. The current contracting method if old and broken. We need to incentive methods of construction that are both cheaper and greener. Until we get rid of cost-plus pricing, we'll be stuck at an impasse.

To find out more about how contractors thwart green road construction, visit my blog at Green Roads Construction: Are Contractors Our Roadblock? While you're there, be sure to leave me a comment with your thoughts and opinions.

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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