Why does road paving take so long in Massachusetts?
December 9, 2007 3:43 PM   Subscribe

Why does road paving take so long in Massachusetts? Last year, when the Mass Pike was being paved, it was a multi-month project. They would mill the road, leave the milled road as is for several weeks, then pave it. The process of covering the length of the work area took several months. By comparison, when I lived in the DC Metro area, paving happened overnight on Route 66 in Northern Virginia inside the Beltway - seemingly instantaneously. One machine would mill the road, collect the milled asphalt, turn it into new asphalt, lay it, and then it would be paved -- in hours, not weeks or months. They would mill/pave one lane one night, then move to the next lane the next night.

As another example of the lengthy paving processes that take place in Massachusetts, there is now a major project underway to pave Route 9. It's so involved that it even has its own website: www.pavert9.com.

Regarding the paving on Route 66, I thought of three reasons why it may have been so speedy - and these are far from comprehensive:

1. Capital area security: Milled roads might provide a hazard in the event of a disaster inside DC.

2. Budget and/or availability of machinery: Mass doesn't have access to the fancy machines in the DC area or can't afford them.

3. Weather: It doesn't get nearly as cold in DC, and that may make the milling process easier.

Any of these make sense? Anything else?
posted by scottso17 to Travel & Transportation around Massachusetts (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Corruption and greed, at a guess. I know an itinerant construction contractor (by nature very pro-labor, by the way) who has worked in Boston, and he will go into great, bewildered tirades about the practices of union labor. They don't like what you propose, they don't walk off the job - they trash the place.

Second hand, as I say, but it would seem to conform with your observations. Slow and steady and second rate can generate a lot of money for a labor crew. (Not a Bostonian myself, so I will be interested in other responses.)
posted by IndigoJones at 3:59 PM on December 9, 2007

Budget + weather...

+ project management priorities
+ union rules
+ reluctance to pay overtime salaries
+ haphazard environmental regulations
+ haphazard workplace regulations
+ emergencies that call away people and machinery to other jobs
the roads don't get built quickly.

Anecdote: In 1994, several freeway overpasses in the greater Los Angeles area were damaged and/or destroyed by the Northridge earthquake. Los Angeles relies almost exclusively on car traffic for day-to-day transportation. Those overpasses were fixed and/or replaced in days, not weeks or months for standard projects doing the same work. Why? Because the state of the emergency meant the suspension of rules against overtime pay.

Amazing what can happen when the political mandate is get it done, now.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:02 PM on December 9, 2007

Isn't Massachusetts the state where the highway authority (and especially the turnpike authority) is renowned for corruption and shady deals with contractors? So I would always have that in the back of my mind.

Getting roadworks done quickly is a matter of money. If you submit bids with a bonus for early completion and penalties for late completion, they'll get done a lot faster. Having a lot of machines around in one place so you can do many kinds of work at once is more expensive too, because you'll have idle machines and operators for part of the time. If you want to do it cheaply, better to stretch it out over weeks and just do one kind of job at a time.

Also, if you can only do work overnight you lose a lot of time at the beginning and end of each work cycle moving equipment into and out of place, paying extra for night workers, etc.

And what Cool Papa Bell said. It's always amazing to me how quickly important roads and bridges can be rebuilt in the U.S. after disasters, especially when compared with the plodding tempo of everyday construction.
posted by grouse at 4:05 PM on December 9, 2007

Data point: I've seen paving projects in other parts of Virginia -- both around Richmond and on I-81 in the western part of the state -- happen exactly as you described the paving of I-66. I've never encountered a repaving project here that lasted more than 3 days. (So proximity to Washington, DC is probably not a factor.)
posted by junkbox at 4:06 PM on December 9, 2007

Regarding Virginia, lots of its highway network is maintained by a private firm, so it might just be a whole different kettle of fish.
posted by grouse at 4:08 PM on December 9, 2007

(For the record, the contractor mentioned above has also done work in DC. THe rap there was not corruption (surprise!) but generally garden variety stupidity, the sort you would expect in any cross section of people on a cooperative venture.)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:09 PM on December 9, 2007

I would hazard a guess that a lot of the more capable labor, supplies and organizational power are devoted to that other Massachusetts project.
posted by mr. remy at 4:12 PM on December 9, 2007

I watched an episode of TopGear where the hosts complained a bit about this. They then set off to pave a mile or so of road in 24 hours. It didn't go well. The biggest problem they had was getting enough asphalt. They ended up pilfing a few trucks from another construction site, and trucking more in from another asphalt plant several hours away. This road was only a 2-lane with medium traffic. I can't imagine how much tougher those DC area roads have to be to handle all that traffic for any decent amount of time.

I bet that the biggest time sink is getting all the supplies to the site.
posted by idiotfactory at 4:30 PM on December 9, 2007

A smaller (yet significant) factor in Massachusetts is the edict that law enforcement must be present at all public roadwork projects -- no regular Joe flagmen allowed. On the federal and larger state roads, that means state troopers, and the rate they command is a lot higher than you'd expect. There was a Boston Globe expose on this back in the mid-to-late-90's that I can't track down.

I seem to remember the work to expand Route 3 north of Burlington went on for nearly ten years, if it's even complete now.
posted by mikeg at 4:49 PM on December 9, 2007

Just to be clear, I don't know anything about the highway contracting process in various states, but I'd agree with previous posters that the way you spec out your contracts would create different incentives for the contractors. On a cost plus basis, you'd want to take forever because every day your workers stand around acting like they're doing something to the road, the more your costs and the more money you get from the state. And I'm pretty sure any competent contractor could pad those costs a little so it's revenue positive for them.

If you paid a fixed cost for the project, however, then the incentive is to get in and get out and do it as cheaply and quickly as possible to minimize your costs. Perhaps that's what Virginia does. (Over and above the fact that if you did anything that even slightly degraded the carrying capacity of I-66 for that long, the rivers would run red with blood and civilization would utterly collapse. There is literally no margin for error in the DC area transportation network these days. It's running drastically over capacity, which is why one flat tire on the Beltway will cascade across the whole system. And, since there's always some minor problem like that somewhere in the system, the system is always sputtering and clogged.)

As a third data point, I'd offer Nevada. When I drove through there, they seemed to be endlessly working on the entire Interstate highway system. All of it. There was literally no point as we crossed the state where there weren't orange plastic barrels lined up alongside the road. They never take them in when a project's done because they're just going to need them again. It would be twenty miles of ordinary road with the barrels lined up along the shoulder, then ten miles of one lane and heavy equipment, then twenty miles of road, and repeat all the way to California.

And we're not talking about junk highway that desperately needed upgrading either. You could EAT off these roads. Easily the most beautifully maintained highways I've ever driven. I can only assume Nevada has a truly massive state makework/federal highway fund boondoggle running in place of an actual economy.
posted by Naberius at 4:53 PM on December 9, 2007

Another data point: Virginia isn't always speedy with the roadwork. In southeastern VA, Rt 64 and Rt. 13 (Military Hwy) were under endless construction the entire seven years I lived in the Norfolk/Va. Beach area.
posted by desuetude at 5:38 PM on December 9, 2007

I wouldn't argue that Virginia is speedy with roadwork in general (please see: The Mixing Bowl), only that repaving an existing road without widening, moving, or redesigning it usually happens quickly in a matter of days, IME.
posted by junkbox at 5:51 PM on December 9, 2007

The Big Dig makes it pretty obvious that the people who are getting the contracts are getting them for other reasons besides quality work and competitive cost.
posted by doppleradar at 8:26 PM on December 9, 2007

I used to live in Florida (A right to work state) and it also seemed to take forever there to do any paving.

I have noticed the huge amount of officers present at any paving in Mass so yeah money may play a part. However, Mass seems to not exactly be starving for dollars.
posted by UMDirector at 5:28 AM on December 10, 2007

money may play a part. However, Mass seems to not exactly be starving for dollars.

No, if the state does not structure the contracts to reward on-time completion, the contractors will do it the cheapest way possible, which is not necessarily the quickest.
posted by grouse at 5:34 AM on December 10, 2007

Blame the free-market economy. Projects are generally given a number of working days to get done. Some DOTs also give a bonus payment to the contractor if they complete the project sooner. Otherwise the contractor schedules their crews and subs to finish the project in the cheapest way they can to maximize profits. That is the gist of the free-market economy.

As with most quick solutions, if you want it done faster there are extra costs associated with that.

BTW, milling machines which recycle asphalt generally give an inferior product than 100% fresh asphalt.
posted by JJ86 at 6:06 AM on December 10, 2007

Best answer: no one has mentioned it, so i will: different roads get paved differently. it sounds like the mass. construction was building the roadway from the ground up, where the DC repair was simply removing and replacing the top layer of asphalt, which is a lot quicker.

as a side note, a couple of years ago they rebuilt a highway near my house. They put something like 1 foot of asphalt down, and then covered it with 18 inches of concrete. That took a while.
posted by lester at 1:08 PM on December 10, 2007

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