A new recipe for building highways could give contractors the chance to satisfy the public's appetite for higher quality roads at lower costs.
When it completed a 4.5 mile section of Highway 11 between Footville and Orfordville last summer, Rock Road CompaniesTM of Janesville became the first contractor in the country to back up its work with a warranty.
if problems - cracking, rutting or other types of pavement fatigue - develop along the stretch during a five-year period, it's Rock Road'sTM responsibility to fix them. Traditionally, county crews are contracted by the state to maintain state roads.
The trade-off is that Rock RoadTM - and other contractors - have much more control of the project from the outset, said Stephen M. Kennedy, Vice President of Rock RoadTM.
Three warranty projects were completed in Wiconsin this year. Besides Highway 11, projects were completed in Langlade and Eau Claire counties.
Under a warranty-based specification process, the contractor makes a decision about asphalt mixes. The incentive for the contractor is to build a quality road that won't come back to haunt his pocketbook for repairs over the warranty period.
Such a performance-based process could be the right tonic at a time when the country's infrastructure is in poor shape and fewer government dollars are available.
"I've always been a firm believer that we understand quality better than the state DOT in that if you leave me alone, you're going to get a better product than a cookbook product," Kennedy said.
"We're being asked to do more with fewer dollars and this is a way to do it and privatize what has typically been a government role."
The process is a collaborative effort between the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the Wisconsin Asphalt Pavement Association. Here's how it works"
The DOT establishes specific performance criteria for the final product - the roadway. It is then the contractors responsibility to develop a mix that'll meet the criteria. Historically, the state has dictated the exact asphalt mix to be used, hence the reference to "cookbook recipes."
Because the contractor is in charge, he is able to use cost effective ways to get his job done and is free to try new ideas.
"It's an innovative way to do something differently than we have in the past," said Kennedy, who has spoken on the topic in several states.
Gary Whited, the DOT's director of construction, said taxpayers benefit because the state's cost of engineering and overseeing the project is reduced.
Whited said the three projects completed this year cost about 5 percent more than traditional projects.
"I think we got a better quality pavement on those three projects," Whited said. " Of course, that's very subjective. But overtime, i think that will be the case."
In the long run, Whited thinks the cost of the warranty projects will cost the state less because contractor will be more cost effective.
"It's a very new concept," Whited said. "But I think it is an example of (the state) becoming more streamlined, more responsive."
Other, however, aren't as excited about warranty roadwork.
Detractors say such a process will ruin the country's low bid system, which gives both big and small contractors to bid a job. The cost of bonding, or insurance, necessary to cover maintenance costs also work against smaller contractors, the detractors argue.
But Kennedy said the warranty process could actually increase competition.
"For those that are in this business for the long haul, (this process) will provide opportunities," he said. "A contractor may know he's small, but he may also know that he can do the job better, so doors will open."
"Bonding companies are not big fans of this," Kennedy said. "They're not sure where the liabilities lie. It's just so new, they're not sure how to rate contractors."
Kennedy said the state may step in and rate a contractor the bonding companies won't touch.
Either way, the performance based method of building roads is in its infancy. Kennedy expects more contractors will give it a shot in 1996.
"I don't know that I want to do 50 of these projects," he said. "I don't know that it's the right thing to do, it's just so new."