Road savings idea strikes out with legislators

For legislators, thinner isn’t necessarily better.

Members of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget raised concerns Friday about using thinner asphalt on state roads as a cost-cutting measure. Texas saves millions of dollars annually by using a 1-inch overlay of asphalt.

State Rep. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, warned the Jindal administration against following Texas’ lead. “It’s easy to make a recommendation like that, but it certainly doesn’t make sense to do something like that,” he said.

Deputy Commissioner of Administration Ruth Johnson assured legislators that the idea still is a work in progress.

“Now certainly they wouldn’t use that on all state roads. There have to be certain conditions that are met for where that’s appropriate. I believe the percentage of roads that would even be considered for that is around 5 percent,” Johnson said.

The Jindal administration hired Alvarez and Marsal, a New York-based global management firm, earlier this year to recommend ways state government could tighten its belt. The firm produced ideas for saving $2.7 billion over five years.

Legislators received a thick book of the recommendations toward the end of this year’s legislative session. During the first two weeks of the current state fiscal year, the cost-cutting ideas produced $740,000 in savings after state officials adjusted insurance policies on ferries, barges and buildings. Alvarez felt the state was overinsuring facilities and vessels.

Another idea is to follow Texas’ lead and use 1-inch overlays of asphalt. Louisiana primarily uses 2-inch overlays. Texas saved $9 million a year by switching to 1-inch overlays.

Louisiana recently spent $84 per ton in a single fiscal year on 1.5-inch and 2-inch overlays. The 1-inch overlay costs $112 per ton but only half as much is needed, generating savings.

Researchers at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute helped develop a thinner asphalt that saves Texas money on maintaining its maze of roads. They contend the overlay mixes work well, ably outperforming a 2-inch thick stack of the old material. They simulated the heat of the sun and the daily pounding from heavy trucks to prove their research. However, legislators in Louisiana remain skeptical, expressing concerns about the thinner asphalt not holding up against the weight of sugar cane-laden trucks or the wall-to-wall traffic of suburb-to-downtown commuters.

Both rural and urban legislators questioned the wisdom Friday of using a thinner asphalt.

“I had that concern as well about the asphalt,” said state Rep. Patricia Smith, echoing Fannin.

State Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, chimed in that she also has reservations. She said she doesn’t want the thinner asphalt to be used on major highways.

Fannin said the thinner asphalt could be used to pave surfaces other than roads. “It may be appropriate on a sidewalk but not on a highway,” he said, adding, “as long as the state’s not liable for the sidewalk.”

Johnson said the idea still is being investigated.

“I’m no engineer, but they look at many different things like the condition of the road, how many people use the road, what the road originally was constructed from,” she said. “They did this in Texas, so there’s some experience.”

Johnson was at the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget meeting to give legislators an update on the savings recommendations. More than $302 million is projected to be saved in the current state budget year.

The recommendations include:

Pursuing more competitive pricing

Selling or leasing under-utilized properties

Maximizing federal funding

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