Cement Association of Canada touts benefits of concrete

by James Menzies

TORONTO, Ont. – Imagine there was a magic highway that delivered 11 per cent better fuel mileage for fleets and owner/operators without any change to driving style or the implementation of costly new truck technology.

Better yet, imagine this magic highway was unaffected by spring weight restrictions, providing carriers with consistent payload year-round.

To take it one step further, imagine this magic highway reduced greenhouse gas emissions, saved government millions in maintenance, improved nighttime visibility, reduced stopping distances for trucks and outlasted all other roads in the country.

According to the Cement Association of Canada (CAC), these magic highways do exist, but they’re few and far between. Recent research conducted by the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada indicates concrete roads deliver a number of benefits for the trucking industry and road users in general.

The biggest benefit for the trucking industry, according to a report by KPMG Consulting, is a considerable increase in fuel economy.

CAC president, Francois Lacroix, says a truck travelling 160,000 kilometres per year averaging seven miles per gallon, can save more than $5,000 each year if it travelled exclusively over concrete roads.

At the same time, nearly 17 million tonnes of CO2 would be removed from the atmosphere for every 1,000 kilometres driven. With the Kyoto Accord looming, making the switch to concrete may seem like a no-brainer.

“Now that Canada has signed the Kyoto Accord, we’re hoping and counting on the federal government to promote, encourage and subsidize methods which reduce CO2 and one of those ways is using concrete for highways,” says Lacroix.

However, not everyone is buying into the recent findings.

Mike O’Connor, president of the Ontario Hot Mix Producers (OHMP), says the report is more of a fairy tale than a well-researched and credible source of information.

“If it was true, there should be truckers lined up on the side of the road begging for people to put concrete down,” says O’Connor. “It’s one of those things where if you take as little data as possible and if you apply it in the most fortuitous way, you can make it say anything.”

O’Connor, and many other asphalt contractors, feel the study is simply propaganda being circulated by a group looking out for its own best interest.

“Anybody who is a statistician will tell you that the amount of information that they’ve garnered isn’t enough to draw any conclusion at all,” says O’Connor. “Quite frankly, this is stretching statistics to the point where it’s almost criminal.”

For its part, the CAC is insistent the numbers are a fair reflection of the fuel savings delivered by concrete roads.

The association stands by its claims that the Ontario trucking industry alone can collectively realize more than $67 million in fuel savings by running only concrete roads.

Accurate results?

The NRC data was based on research involving a fully-loaded tractor-trailer travelling 100 km-h on a horizontal surface.

Hwy. 440 in Quebec served as the concrete test section, while Ontario’s Hwy. 417 was used to test the asphalt portion of the experiment.

O’Connor says anyone who’s driven Hwy. 417 can see for themselves why the NRC reached its conclusion, by selectively choosing which surfaces to conduct the test on.

“In the study they picked their own road surfaces and guess what? The asphalt road is a little rougher,” says O’Connor. He says asphalt is almost always smoother, meaning it provides less rolling resistance resulting in better fuel efficiency.

“The fact is, smoothness is the most important thing when it comes to fuel savings,” says O’Connor.

As far as the CAC is concerned, the reaction of the OHMP isn’t justified.

Fuel economy aside, the CAC’s Lacroix says there are numerous other advantages of concrete roads.

For instance, the association’s data also indicates that concrete lasts twice as long as asphalt, can save the province up to $7 million annually in reduced congestion costs, provides better traction and enhances overall road safety.

He says there’s already a movement towards concrete highways in Quebec, and Ontario is also giving concrete a closer look.

Lacroix notes Hwy. 417 is being rebuilt with concrete thanks to a new formula used by the province of Ontario which takes into account considerations such as downtime, traffic delays and fuel mileage, when tendering road projects.

Concrete was the surface of choice when all these factors were considered, despite the higher up-front cost.

O’Connor, however, is quick to point out the asphalt contractor who lost the job, is now engaged in a lawsuit against the province after it came to light that a miscalculation in the tender overlooked the need for an additional 50,000 sq. metres of concrete.

Any life-cost savings that may have been delivered by concrete goes out the window when the miscalculation is considered, says O’Connor.

He also says even road builders who gave concrete a chance in the past are losing faith in the alternative road surface.

He points to Hwy. 407 as an example.

The privately-owned Ontario toll highway was initially built with concrete but the extensions are now being created with asphalt.

“They’re the guys who have to live with it and maintain it and own it, so that tells me something,” says O’Connor.

The CAC says the main reason concrete hasn’t been fully embraced in Canada is because of the higher cost of the initial investment.

Lacroix says it’s short-sighted to overlook the benefits simply because concrete roads cost about five to 15 per cent more to build than asphalt highways.

“If you’ve got a highway that needs to be rebuilt, you have to put up the full money or with the little cost of asphalt you can stretch it another two years,” says Lacroix.

“Since most Departments of Transport across Canada see their budgets cut every year, they’re in a bind and they can’t really do the right thing, so they’re just doing patchwork. It’s not a good business decision, but it’s a fact of life.”

He says in the U.S., about 30 per cent of the country’s Interstates are built of concrete, because the life-cost savings are proving to be worthwhile south of the border.

Road builders, for the most part, are prepared to do whatever is asked of them.

If concrete should become the material of choice, there’ll be no shortage of contractors willing to bid on jobs, says Rob Bradford, president of the Ontario Road Builders’ Association.

“My members are very capable of constructing highways out of either material,” says Bradford, noting the association hasn’t taken a stance for, or against, concrete roads.

“They certainly both have their selling points and they’re both perfectly appropriate materials. We support well-designed and properly specified pavements, so as long as the material can reach both of those criteria (that’s the most important thing).”

Contractors joining in

Lacroix says he’s encouraged to see more and more contractors throwing in their hats on concrete tenders.

“Contractors by trade, will bid on whatever is out there,” says Lacroix, noting two major asphalt contractors recently announced they’ll now bid on concrete jobs. “It’s a chicken and an egg situation.”

O’Connor, on the other hand, says there’s little need to give up on the time-proven asphalt material used today.

“It is cheaper and there’s nothing wrong with being cheaper when it comes to construction costs,” says O’Connor.

“New designs and new technology have allowed us to design asphalt highways that last 50 years.”

He urges decision-makers not to take the recent reports concerning the benefits of concrete at face value.

“Anyone who would use the information they have so far, in the manner they have – I wouldn’t trust them no matter what,” says O’Connor.

“As far as I’m concerned, these guys have spent a lot of money promoting a product that they’re not getting very far with.”

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