Although the prices of cement and concrete-related products have been on the rise, the skyrocketing price of oil in the last three years has made the concrete industry more competitive, especially in road-building. Source: Ken Simonson, chief economist of the Associated General Contractors of America, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics
Although the prices of cement and concrete-related products have been on the rise, the skyrocketing price of oil in the last three years has made the concrete industry more competitive, especially in road-building. Source: Ken Simonson, chief economist of the Associated General Contractors of America, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics
A string of mild winters lulled customers into keeping less salt in reserve, contributing to shortages when a heavy winter drove 2007 sales to a near-record high of 20.3 million tons. Complete 2008 figures aren't in yet, but first-half sales were 12.4% higher than the same period a year earlier — and more salt was sold than for all of 2006. Source: Salt Institute
A string of mild winters lulled customers into keeping less salt in reserve, contributing to shortages when a heavy winter drove 2007 sales to a near-record high of 20.3 million tons. Complete 2008 figures aren't in yet, but first-half sales were 12.4% higher than the same period a year earlier — and more salt was sold than for all of 2006. Source: Salt Institute

Funding from the highway reauthorization bill combined with the short-term funding from the economic stimulus package would provide a hefty shot in the arm for transportation funding — a necessity for managers considering the U.S. DOT's projection that maintaining current congestion levels and physical conditions on roads and bridges requires an additional $19 billion annually.

As the new presidential administration and Congress debate the amount of funding for transportation, several bills are expected to get a fresh look during the 111th Congress. Many have one thing in common: environmental regulations.

The legacy of the failed Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2008 (S 3036) is expected to linger during the new Congress and beyond. In October the House Energy & Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), and the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, chaired by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), released a “discussion draft” of climate change legislation.

The Lieberman-Warner bill would have regulated carbon dioxide by capping emissions and allowing emitters to trade carbon allowances. Under the bill, the U.S. EPA would have established a federal greenhouse gas registry of gases produced and consumed by certain facilities and would set the quantities of emission allowances, which would decline each year from 2012 to 2050.

It would have established a cap-and-trade auction with carbon credits based on those allowances — not a good thing for the transportation industry because the cost of the credits would be factored into projects, according to Nick Goldstein, assistant general counsel and director of regulatory affairs for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

Congressmen say the House will take the lead on climate change during the next Congressional session, and the Dingell-Boucher cap-and-trade bill may be at the top of the list — although it likely would generate heated debate that could stall its enactment through the end of the 111th Congress in January 2011.

Also at the top of the list is expected to be the reintroduction of the Clean Water Restoration Act (HR 2421/S 1870), which would expand the EPA's jurisdiction to roadsides. Although previous bills stalled during the 110th Congress (HR 2421) never made it out of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and its companion bill in the Senate stalled in the Environment and Public Works Committee), there is expected to be a new push when Congress reconvenes this month.

It would amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to replace the term “navigable waters” with the term “waters of the United States,” defined to include lakes, rivers, wetlands, sloughs, and even roadside drainage ditches and temporary basins at construction sites. The EPA would govern all activities affecting those waters, including road construction.

Senate Democrats supported the previous Clean Water Restoration Act, but a nearly 60% Democratic majority may speed its passage this time around, especially considering that President Obama has said that wetlands preservation would be a priority in his administration.

Keep an eye on regulations at the state level as well. More states are expected to follow in the footsteps of California, where regulations took effect in June requiring mandatory retrofits to reduce emissions from off-road diesel-powered vehicles.

 

The Associated General Contractors of America has petitioned the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to reopen its rulemaking on emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. The retrofit rule is subject to federal approval of CARB's request for a “waiver of federal preemption,” and the EPA is expected to act on the request quickly.

A waiver would require that most construction contractors working in California retrofit or replace up to 90% of their off-road diesel equipment over the next decade. Although the federal Clean Air Act typically prohibits states from setting emission standards for off-road diesel equipment, the statute makes an exception for California. If it is approved by the EPA, several other states such as Illinois are expected to craft similar statutes.

Salt psychology

Burned by last year's tough winter, hoarding is contributing to double and even triple price increases.

Last year's heavy snows left many Northeast and Midwest public works departments out of salt by February and salt miners tapped out by March.

According to the Salt Institute, mines are working “flat out” — as close to 24/7 as safety allows — to replenish supplies. While mine expansions are under way, it'll be years before they start producing.

In addition, a variety of other factors are driving up salt prices:

  • Skyrocketing energy costs
  • Mine skilled-laborer shortages
  • In the Midwest, a late end to last winter's season delayed shipments along the upper Mississippi River and heavy spring flooding closed the supply pipeline for four weeks, impeding efforts to replenish stockpiles along the river.
  • Increased competition for barges, trucks, rail cars, and Great Lakes ships to move the salt.
  • Customer stockpiling — for example, five DOT bids increased by a combined 2 million tons. Since most contracts require the timely delivery of as much as 120% of the bid amount, suppliers were reluctant to submit bids. The high supply caps also cut into salt availability. As to whether there will be enough salt, that's up to Mother Nature.
  • To be more specific, says Salt Institute President Dick Hanneman, it depends on the number of snow events requiring response and the type of snow: how heavy/wet, how deep, the duration of a snow event.

    Although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that snow can't be predicted more than several days in advance, Farmer's Almanac forecasts a “numbingly cold” winter, with heavy snow in the Great Lakes and Plains regions. Forecasts for 2009/10 aren't yet available.

    To prepare for this season and next, Hanneman recommends:

  • Maintaining at least a year's supply. For 2009/10, agencies should have already budgeted to build storage capacity so they can start taking delivery in mid-2009.
  • Making sure all drivers are trained to fight snow effectively; you'll find free, downloadable training guides at www.saltinstitute.org.
  • Calibrating spreaders to manufacturer specifications to ensure they disperse the appropriate amount of material.
  • Having a written snow and ice control plan in place.
  • Also, look into imported salt, which may be less expensive than domestic depending on the distribution route, as well as pre-wetting and liquid de-icing. (See page 88 for an example.)

     

    — Victoria K. Sicaras