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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Highway Deterioration

The 43,000 mile interstate highway system, started under President Eisenhower, is now complete. And too much of it is falling apart, requiring large maintenance-repair costs.

Potholes, large fissures and cracks and undulations are too frequent a sight on the nation’s streets and highways. The jolting wear and tear on vehicles, the long lines of cars negotiating detours during repairs, the pollution buildup, and the energy and time waste amount to many dollars, frayed nerves and health deterioration.

Why the highway deterioration? The popular explanation is to blame heavy trucks with heavy axle weight. The damage by these vehicles is extraordinary, compared to automobiles, and their user fees do not cover the repair costs.

But what about the adequacy of highway design — one of the more stagnant technologies of the twentieth century? Ask Fred Lang, former DuPont engineer and inventor of a pre-stressed, post-tensioned concrete that can produce near maintenance-proof roads with smooth rides. Anybody who can demonstrate a way to build smooth highways that do not crack, buckle or pothole should have the highway world beating a pathway to his door, right?

Wrong. Although there have been demonstration stretches of roadway using, more or less, Lang’s design and although a number of high-level parking garages have used Lang’s invention, the federal and state highway departments, who determine the standards for highway design with the heavy influence of the concrete and asphalt industries, have not been interested.

So, not to be deterred and with his patent expired, the 73 year old Lang has come up with an ingenious idea to induce the building of highway pavement. It is one that will circumvent the powerful lobby of cement and asphalt which opposes pavement designs that require considerably less of those materials. Lang proposes that the government pay rent on pavement provided by the winner of a competitive bid.

Here is what Lang has written to the 50 states: A competitive bidding process would result in a winning company that will design and build a pavement having better than the specified rideability and an expected life of 50 years at no cost to the state other than a competitive rental per axle-mile. The rental is to be paid by the state to the pavement company monthly as long as the rideability of the pavement remains better than the rideability specified in the bid invitation issued by the state.

The state will own the pavement starting with the day that the pavement is opened to traffic. At any time the pavement no longer provides the rideability the state has specified, the state will discontinue all rental payments on that pavement.

Lang is convinced that his and other high technology pavement designers “can reduce pavement costs more than 50 percent and achieve a rideability of pavement much superior to that of any other type of current pavement.”

He has formally proposed to the Delaware Department of Transportation that is select a project site of at least 500 feet, 38 feet wide for 2 traffic lanes and two standard shoulders for the bidding process.

To the many questions which arise on hearing his proposal, Lang has answers. He has thought through the practical problems of when rental payments are suspended, when they are to be ended and what are the replacement options.

If the actual truck traffic exceeds the original estimates, the rental payments can be adjusted upward in percentage during the life of the pavement contract. The government would continue to own the land under the pavement and would procure other services related to the highway including sub-grade preparation.

The well-regarded McGraw-Hill publication, Engineering News-Record (September 28, 1989 issue) discussed Lang’s idea, calling it “a productive suggestion that deserves consideration.”

As of now, however, Lang needs a hearing before a Congressional Committee, a General Accounting Office inquiry into the Federal Highway Administration’s obstinacy against any change in highway design that offends the lobbies and, finally, some mass media coverage to alert the motorists of this country that there is a better and cheaper way to build highway pavement.

The Department of Transportation estimates that it will cost $600 billion just to bring the crumbling interstate highway system to its original standards. What a shame to see the taxpayers being required to pay for another round of crumble-prone highways. (Interested readers may write for more details to Fred Lang, 4200 Newport Gap Pike, Hockessin, Delaware, 19709).