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MnDOT advised to mix up pavement selection

Brian Johnson//March 28, 2014

MnDOT advised to mix up pavement selection

Brian Johnson//March 28, 2014

The Minnesota Department of Transportation should identify a “full range” of pavement alternatives for road rehabilitation projects, including combinations of concrete and asphalt fixes instead of just one or the other, according to an Office of the Legislative Auditor’s report released Wednesday.

Still, the report found that MnDOT meets “many but not all recommended practices” for selecting pavement for road rehabilitation projects.

Among the concerns cited in the report: MnDOT selected pavement surfaces on the basis of incomplete data and used outdated cost estimates in key life-cycle cost analyses of pavements.

Auditors recommended changes to MnDOT’s bidding practices for rehab projects and said that cost estimates should better reflect market conditions. They also said MnDOT should develop a process for weighing “both economic and non-economic factors” related to pavement selection.

Pavement selection is a big deal in the industry, as concrete and asphalt companies try to make the case that their product offers better value as measured by upfront cost, durability or both.

But the concrete and asphalt folks agree that the pavement selection process needs to be fair and predictable, and that’s part of what the report addressed, according to Matt Zeller, executive director of the Concrete Paving Association of Minnesota.

Though the report is somewhat technical in nature, it gets at the heart of an issue that most Minnesotans care about: building long-lasting roads in an economical way, according to Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul.

“It was kind of timely in pothole season,” said Hansen, who chairs the Legislative Audit Commission’s evaluation subcommittee, which got a briefing on the report Wednesday afternoon.

One thing’s for certain: MnDOT does a lot of rehab work. According to the report, 85 percent of pavement projects between 2009 and 2013 were rehabs, while only 15 percent were new construction or reconstruction.

During that time, MnDOT had 388 rehab projects, of which 88 percent were bituminous, 10 percent were concrete, and 2 percent were a mixture of both, the report noted.

In fiscal year 2013 alone, MnDOT saw $365.5 million in contracts for road rehabilitation projects.

On Wednesday, the House Transportation Finance Committee approved a bill that includes $15 million to help local governments repair potholes. The legislation, which is in the omnibus transportation supplemental budget bill, includes $5 million from the general fund and $10 million from the trunk highway fund.

MnDOT estimates that the money could fill up to 50,000 potholes.

Zeller said a few minor changes in how MnDOT develops its paving projects could “go a long way in stretching the available dollars” for the state’s cash-strapped transportation system.

But that would require a “change of mindset in how we address our aging system,” Zeller said, including increased use of “thin whitetopping,” which is a concrete overlay on existing distressed asphalt pavement.

MnDOT traditionally hasn’t used that approach, but Zeller said it has tested well in research settings and is an option that’s worth exploring.

Jody Hauer, the OLA’s project manager for the report, said the report drew from a wide array of “national literature” to identify recommended practices for pavement selection. It took nearly a year to complete, she said.

One of the key findings dealt with the calculation of a pavement’s “life-cycle cost,” a key consideration in selecting pavement types.

For example, MnDOT used cost data that was more than a year old in 12 of 40 sample projects, or 30 percent. The report said MnDOT should use more timely cost estimates.

In addition, the report said MnDOT should estimate “user costs” when considering pavement alternatives, including factors such as time delays for drivers and vehicle operating costs.

The report also urged the Legislature to repeal a law that requires the department to compare “equal design life” when choosing between pavement alternatives. The law doesn’t clearly define how to do that, and national literature doesn’t recommend the practice, the report said.

Hansen said it’s possible that a repeal of the “equal design life” law could be taken up in the current legislative session.

MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht praised the Office of the Legislative Auditor’s work.

“The report is timely in that we have been considering our pavement selection processes and how we need to adjust them. This report will provide some valuable insight into that process,” Gutknecht added in a statement.

“I don’t think there’s anything [in the report] that’s overly critical of MnDOT, and I don’t think there’s anything that says MnDOT should build more concrete or more asphalt,” Zeller said.

Rather, the report found out that “MnDOT needs to define their processes a little better,” Zeller said.

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