The Reagan Administration says billions of your annual tax dollars are needed to repair the deteriorating interstate highway system, yet its Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is sitting on a proven method to build or repair highways that last longer at a much cheaper cost.
Available for over ten years, the technique is called “prestressed concrete” — a remarkably simple way to let highway concrete expand or contract during temperature changes without the road buckling, cracking, or degrading into potholes. Private corporations have been using it for years to construct parking garages, office buildings and bridges. Moreover the FHWA has in its possession, yet to be made public, its own expert panel report approving the performance and cost savings of prestressed concrete on four segments of demonstration highways that FHWA built during the last eleven years.
Three years ago, FHWA completed work on 3 volumes of manuals for applying the prestressed concrete method to the design and construction of reduced maintenance pavements. But the Portland Cement Association (PCA), a trade lobby of cement manufacturers which drafted most of the materials, put some self-serving specifications such as 8″ pavement depth in the draft manual. FHWA engineer, Floyd Stanek, (telephone number 703-285-2062) objected, providing his technical justification for 6″ pavement.
While millions of vehicles and their occupants get battered daily by crumbling, potholed highways and while taxpayers pay billions of dollars more then they should, the powerful Portland Cement Association and its bureaucratic allies are worrying about what this more efficient engineering system does to cement sales.
Prestressed concrete uses about 40X less concrete than conventional highway pavement and less than a fourth of the steel. Naturally the cement and steel interests view this technique dimly and have worked to keep the innovation on the bureaucratic shelf. The states, which build the highways, look to the federal government for highway engineering standards. Washington pays about 90% for the interstate system and to receive these funds the roads have to be built in accordance with federal design standards. Mr. Stanek complains that today roads are being built with twenty year old design manuals.
PCA does not like either prestressed concrete or Floyd Stanek who has challenged their position at technical forums. Amazingly enough, Stanek, a veteran 61 year old civil servant, has been officially reprimanded by his superior, Richard A. McComb, and told “to stop all your work on the preparation and coordination of one or both of the prestressed pavement papers” presented before the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences.
Stanek says there is “absolutely no technical reason why prestressed concrete should not work. Politics is coming into it. Leading engineering authorities, such as Professor Ernest Barenberg of the University of Illinois, believe prestressed concrete is a major cost and performance breakthrough for the nation’s roads. The test roads in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and near Dulles Airport are proof in the pudding.
Highways that are falling apart are more than costly and uncomfortable to drive over. They are accident hazards to motorists and occupational hazards to truck drivers and other daily drivers who are bounced up and down vertically as they maneuver their vehicles horizontally. Rough roads also mean more repair expenses for vehicles.
I have asked Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole and Chairman of the House Public Works Committee, Representative James Howard to investigate this stifling of an economical highway technology. If you need any reminder to write your member of Congress and that large deficit spender, President Reagan, wait until the next time you drive over a pothole or a cracking highway. You probably won’t be waiting long.