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COLUMN

On the road to ruin -- or savings?

New design guidelines make some projects cheaper, but will they last?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012 - 7:19 am

Why would Allen County officials supposedly dealing with a budget crisis object to cutting the cost of road work by $400,000, with additional savings likely in future projects?

Because they fear the short-term “savings” will create unnecessary expenses later on – a bill they say bureaucrats in Indianapolis and Washington, D.C., created but will not have to pay.

Whether they're right – or simply alarmist – remains to be seen.

“To me, it's an unfunded mandate,” said County Commissioner Nelson Peters, who with fellow Commissioners Linda Bloom and Therese Brown last week grudgingly agreed to pay engineers thousands of dollars to revise specifications for the widening of Flutter Road between St. Joe and Schwartz Road – a change mandated by new guidelines from the Federal Highway Administration and the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT).

The redesign is expected to cut the construction cost from $1.9 million to about $1.5 million, according to County Highway Engineer Mike Thornson. But it's the source of the savings that concerns Peters, and possibly other local officials here and around the state.

As previously designed, the Flutter Road project would have followed the county's usual formula of a 7-inch stone base topped with a 7-inch layer of asphalt. Because of a new computer-driven formula that take traffic, moisture, soil conditions and other factors into account, the contractor will now need just 6 inches of stone and 4 inches of asphalt.

INDOT officials say the guidelines are designed to save taxpayers money by prevent “overbuilding” – an especially important consideration given the soaring cost of the petroleum needed to produce asphalt. Peters, however, contends that saving money by lowering the quality of construction could cost more in the long run – a bill his constituents would have to pay without any help from Indianapolis or Washington.

And that "you're-on-your-own" aspect is crucial, because Flutter Road – like many transportation projects – is to be funded 80 percent by the federal government, with the county responsible for just 20 percent. The county could choose to require thicker asphalt than the new guidelines specify, but it would have to pay for the difference. That's hardly likely, given County Council's recent well-publicized and often controversial efforts to save money.

Even more significantly, future repairs will be made at county expense – a bill that could turn into real money if Flutter and future projects don't last the 20 years envisioned by the previous design. It would be like buying cheap furniture to save money, only to have it fall apart after just a few months of use.

But although Peters is certainly right to be skeptical about the new guidelines – an improved Flutter Road will surely attract more and heavier traffic than it does now, for example – there are plenty of reasons to applaud the change, too.

For one thing, even Thornson agrees with INDOT's contention that a properly designed and constructed road will last for years even with a thinner asphalt coat. Poor drainage or soil conditions could quickly undermine a road built to the new specifications, but that has been a problem under the old guidelines as well.

If local officials have indeed “overbuilt” some roads – possibly because they have had to pay only a fraction of the cost – why shouldn't that practice be curbed, especially when the cost of asphalt is likely to increase even more? (INDOT has also begun to require local officials to seek road construction bids using both asphalt and more-durable concrete in some situations – a move that could also save money long-term.)

Although Peters is skeptical of this next point, one would hope that that the new guidelines were imposed only after thorough testing of the premise that, when properly designed, located and built, roads built in the future will last at least as long as their predecessors have.

If they do, taxpayers will get more miles of new and improved roads for the same amount of money.

If not, Peters' cynicism will turn into wisdom as new roads grow old before their time.

But either way, the experiment seems worthy – so long as holes that may or may not develop in the plan are not allowed to create even larger problems for taxpayers and motorists.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.