South Carolina taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year resurfacing and building roads, many of which begin deteriorating within their first two decades.
Records obtained and analyzed by The Greenville News suggest that one reason for the deterioration in some Upstate roads is a failure by contractors to meet pavement standards set by state government — standards that are similar to those of neighboring states.
About 6 percent of tests of newly paved roads fail pavement tests and result in financial penalties, according to records obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act. Statewide, the standards aren’t met about 1 percent of the time, records show.
While 6 percent and 1 percent may not seem like much, if those conditions result in quicker deterioration, it could represent the annual wasting of taxpayer funds — a precious resource at a time when the condition of South Carolina roads and their underfunding has been identified as a threat to the state’s growth and the safety of its drivers.
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And the possibility exists that the records showing that contractors fail to meet state standards for asphalt compaction could be understating the problem and the cost to taxpayers, according to one former contractor with long experience in road and airport construction.
Bob Young of Easley, who said his former Florida engineering firm once paved taxiways at Miami International Airport, wrote in a letter to Gov. Nikki Haley that he has watched pavement resurfacing and maintenance crews in the Upstate in recent years and has concluded that weak standards, testing and oversight, as well as poor construction techniques, have resulted in roads that wear out far sooner than they should.
“Asphalt pavement placed today would have a maximum life of five years and pavement cracks would appear during the first year because of inadequate compaction,” he wrote about the state’s roads.
“You might have noticed that as soon as you drive out of South Carolina onto a Georgia or North Carolina highway, the road suddenly becomes very smooth. Drive to Florida on 20-year-old I-95 or I-75 and it will be like driving on glass. These roads were compacted to strict specifications when they were built.”
State Transportation Secretary Robert St. Onge responded to Young’s allegations with a letter explaining that the agency uses certified inspectors on road sites, takes many tests and follows applicable state and national standards.
The agency declined, however, to answer the question at the heart of Young’s letter — whether flaws in road building or paving lead eventually to deterioration and flaws in the roads.
Asked whether it was possible that flaws in the process of paving a road could cause deterioration, Department of Transportation Chairman Johnny Edwards of Travelers Rest referred to St. Onge’s letter to Young.
“I’m going to concur with what the secretary said in his letter,” he said. “Of course, anything is possible, you know that. But right now I think the secretary answered it as good as I could.”
David Herndon, a former executive director of the South Carolina Asphalt Pavement Association who now teaches asphalt certification courses, says that while most contractors work hard to produce quality pavement, sometimes “things happen.”
“Not all contractors are created equal, just like any industry,” he said. “There are issues out there and to say there are not would probably be naive. But are they doing everything they can to keep those problems from occurring? I can see that as well.”
Herndon said those who produce asphalt can make the best product in the nation, but contractors still have to contend with a variety of issues, many times unexpected, such as changing subgrade, and pipes or utilities that weren’t supposed to be there.
Young attributes some of the deterioration to what he believes is a failure to achieve proper compaction, the process of pressing out air voids in the asphalt that can let in moisture and begin the process of cracks and road decay.
Experts say either too many air voids or too few can cause pavement failure. But the Federal Highway Administration doesn’t have a required percentage for states to follow. Herndon says that is because states use local materials in building roads and some materials compact better than others.
States vary on their requirements for asphalt density percentages, according to national experts, though most fall within a range of about 6 percent.
South Carolina requires an asphalt density percentage of between 92.2 and 96 percent for interstates and primary roads. The minimum density percentage for secondary roads is 91.2 percent, Department of Transportation records show.
About 6 percent, or 23, of 392 tests of newly paved stretches of roads in 38 Upstate paving projects from 2008 to 2010 failed the state’s compaction standards and were assessed financial penalties totaling $58,432, according to records obtained by The News under the state Freedom of Information Act.
Another 29, or 7 percent, of the projects had compaction readings exceeding the state standard and were awarded bonuses totaling $97,034, according to the records.
In Florida, where Young is from, a spokesman for the Florida transportation department said the compaction requirement ranges from 90 to 95 percent, with a target of 93 percent.
In Georgia, a spokesman for the Georgia transportation department said the requirement is expressed as the maximum percentage of allowed air voids, at 7 percent. Expressed as an air void, South Carolina’s requirement would be 4 to 8 percent.
In North Carolina, the state requires a density of between 90 and 92 percent, depending on whether the asphalt is in the base of the road or the surface, said a transportation department spokesman.
St. Onge, in his letter to Young, said the agency follows state and national standards when doing road work.
According to the Transportation Department, roads on average may move from routine preservation to rehabilitation by their 13th year and to reconstruction by year 17, if not maintained.
And the cost differences can be dramatic. According to the department, $1 million will pay for about 51 lane miles of preservation, but only eight miles of rehabilitation and five miles of reconstruction.
Herndon said a major issue with the state’s roads is maintenance. He said homeowners and car owners know the importance of preventative maintenance.
But he said politicians throughout the nation like to spend more money on new roads. And citizens don’t understand why highway officials sometimes spend maintenance money on what looks like perfectly good roads instead of poor roads. He says that is because the bad road will cost so much more to repair.
But he says not all cracking and road deterioration is related to a lack of maintenance. Some of it is related to traffic loads, if they are more than predicted. And some, he said, can be affected by the mix formula for asphalt.
In a report earlier this year, the transportation department said 47 percent of the state’s almost 10,000 miles of primary roads are in poor condition, while 53 percent of the state’s 31,000 miles of secondary roads are rated poor.
A state task force estimated last year that it would take $29 billion over 20 years to bring the state’s roads and bridges up to acceptable. A business coalition has estimated the cost at $10 billion over a shorter time frame.
In a survey of state highway engineers in 1987, 11 of 14 said air voids of between 4 and 8 percent — the target range for South Carolina projects — adversely affect the life and performance of pavement.
Washington State Highway Commission officials routinely investigate resurfacing projects and try to determine factors that lead to pavement failure. In a 2007 study for the commission, the authors noted that air voids are “one of the most significant” factors in pavement failure in that state.
Young said in his letter that if the state had a 98 percent compaction requirement, used an aggregate base and used 1-inch layers for the top surface, “We could be building more than twice as many roads with the same amount of money.”
Ned Sloan, a retired South Carolina paving contractor who worked in the business for 30 years, said states have similar paving standards and inspections that are “generally adequate.”
“Soil conditions and foundation conditions vary,” he said.
“All roads crack and some of it gets maintained and some doesn’t. One difference in South Carolina is that the resurfacing program has been deficient for lack of funding.”