Road building is local business

by July 14, 2014

The federal Highway Trust Fund is projected to run out of money on August 1.   Congress is as usual eschewing a long-term, sweeping vision in favor of a short-term patch.   According to Bloomberg, odds are that a House version of a transportation bill will make it to President Obama for signature.

With looming funding issues, it might be an opportune moment to check up on how roadwork monies trickle out to companies and individuals in your state or region – and what would happen if the cash flow dried up, even temporarily.

State transportation department sites offer information about bids, awards and contracts that you can readily mine.  I think an interesting story would be to parse a single contract and illustrate in prose or a big graphic how the bottom-line dollar amount meanders through the economy.  How many sub-contractors are on the job?  How many workers got a slice of the funds?  What sort of equipment, consulting, engineering, etc. feeds into a small stretch of roadway or a bridge or drainage system?   What is the cost of each element, the profit margin for the contractors, and so on? 

Who owns the companies?  What sort of warranty is on the work – I’m sure we’ve all wondered who’s accountable when potholes appear on newly-paved roadways.

Here’s a primer from the Michigan Department of Transportation, “From plans to pavement: How a road is built,” that might arm you with additional questions to ask regarding the scope of local jobs.

Some states have handy vendor sites, like this one from Ohio that lists approved vendors (what is the approval process?) for elements of road construction ranging from guardrails to traffic signals to pre-cast concrete.  Some interesting small- and medium-sized business stories in there, no doubt – how are these firms affected by the ebb and flow of federal funds?   

If your state doesn’t provide a convenient list you still can parse out the subcontractors from public records or just by stopping at the side of the road where construction is taking place.  Are they worried about highway funding?  What happens if a fix isn’t found by next month?

Here’s the U.S. Department of Transportation’s online Highway Trust Fund ticker, which shows the dwindling funds in graphic form; the site also offers  a blog, social media links and an FAQ on “cash management procedures” should the August 1 deadline pass without a fix; you might need a veteran bureaucrat to translate but having those FAQs in hand will be helpful when asking your state transportation department officials and contractors about the local impact of a budget impasse.

Roads and Bridges is a trade publication and website with some interesting articles, links and editorials about the industry.  You can follow a variety of hashtags, too, like #FixTheTrustFund and #HighwayTrustFund for leads to other issues and sources. 

Trade groups and lobbying organizations like the American Road & Transportation Builders Association may be helpful or provide info about issues in your region.   There’s also an Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

BEYOND FINANCE, OTHER STORY IDEAS INCLUDE:

Jobs:  How does one get the job, of, say, stop-sign holder at the side of the road project?  What do they earn?  What’s the jobs outlook for roadway engineers, or heavy equipment drivers, or concrete “chemists?”  Is there really a shortage of experienced and qualified workers, as this story from the Rapid City Journal suggests?

Equipment:  What’s the latest trend in orange barrel technology?  What’s the strategy behind the placement of barrels and other traffic management equipment, and the science behind keeping traffic flowing in construction zones? 

Efficiency trends:  Night and weekend work seems to be on the rise. 

Technology:  Robot welders are being used in bridge repair – what else is being automated?

Green elements of road construction:  From the type of plantings used in roadside green space to geothermal heat for rest areas, what are some of the eco-friendly practices at work in the road construction industry?  What areas still have room for improvement?