LAST OF TWO PARTS
There’s a straightforward way to transform Oahu’s crumbling, pothole-plagued roads into the smoother ones that drivers in other parts of the country enjoy, asphalt-pavement industry experts say, but it’s a solution that has eluded the state and city for decades.
Simply put, local maintenance officials need to do a better job (or in some cases, any job) extending the life of roads by treating them regularly with rubberlike sealants — materials that other places have used for more than 40 years, the experts say.
Moreover, maintenance crews need a detailed program to manage all the work, as well as the leadership and budget to ensure it’s done right, industry experts add.
Hardly any of Oahu’s city streets get treated with such sealants. There has never been a preservation program, but Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration is now developing one, city officials say. They add, however, that it will take some time to turn conditions around, and it could be several years before drivers start seeing improvements on island roads.
Meanwhile, the state, under Gov. David Ige and Department of Transportation Director Ford Fuchigami, remains tight-lipped about what steps they have taken for better preventive maintenance on the state-owned roads, including the H-1 freeway, and Kamehameha, Pali and Likelike highways.
The state DOT did not respond to Honolulu Star-Advertiser requests to interview Edwin Sniffen, who heads the highways division, or to emailed questions over the past several weeks.
Nonetheless, a mainland consultant echoed what most Oahu drivers already suspect about those state roads.
“Out of the 50 states, Hawaii’s roads are near the bottom. … It’s unfortunate but it’s true,” said Larry Galehouse, director of the Michigan State University-based National Center for Pavement Preservation. Galehouse said he’s observed those roads over the past decade while consulting for the state and visiting the islands.
DOT can’t find 2008 report
Galehouse added that in 2008 he provided the DOT with a federally funded 43-page report called “Pavement Preservation Technical Appraisal.” It included 16 pages of recommendations to better preserve the islands’ state roads. In preparing that report, Galehouse said, he found the state’s approach to road upkeep was generally more “reactive than proactive,” that its crews needed better training and that the department lacked guidelines for preservation treatments.
“Everyone was doing everything a little different,” he recalled. “They didn’t put much attention into their pavement management system. There were a lot of problems.”
It’s not clear whether state officials acted on any of Galehouse’s recommendations. DOT spokesman Tim Sakahara said last week he was unable to find a copy of the report.
“A lot of what we recommended fell on deaf ears,” Galehouse said. On subsequent trips he noticed that “by and large they didn’t do it,” he said.
Sakahara said in an email that DOT’s Highways Division “does its best balancing its limited budget and time to ensure that it can meet its highway related duties.” Its needs have “historically exceeded its resources, which is a trend that is expected to continue,” he wrote. DOT officials did not respond to requests for further information.
Preventive maintenance is key
There’s no official ranking of U.S. states for the conditions of their state-owned roads, federal officials say. The Federal Highways Administration does rate the roads’ “roughness,” but that rating system — in which nearly half of Hawaii’s reported roads fared poorly — does not consider cracks, potholes or other deterioration.
Soon, however, states might have to start reporting such data to federal officials so that they’re more accountable for the federal dollars they receive, Galehouse said.
He and other consultants flagged Arizona, New York, California, Michigan, Minnesota and North Carolina as states with quality roads because they keep to a detailed preventive maintenance regimen. Crews there regularly add sealants such as “crack seal” (stripes of rubbery sealant that trace a crack) and “slurry seal” (emulsion that coats the entire road surface), based on a schedule that predicts how quickly those roads fall apart, they said.
When it comes to climate, Hawaii is no more disadvantaged in preserving roads than any other state — other regions cope with snow or searing heat, Galehouse said. Industry experts say that all states report doing some sort of crack-seal treatment, including Hawaii. It’s not clear what the Aloha State’s program involves, though.
Honolulu’s Department of Facility Maintenance oversees most Oahu roads, but its crews don’t have the tools to use crack seal, department Director Ross Sasamura said. Recently it partnered with the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the Hawaii Asphalt Pavement Industry to study how different crack seals perform on several residential blocks in Pearl City. Eventually, the agency aims to buy equipment so its crews can apply crack seal across the island, Sasamura said.
‘We’re not breaking ground here’
The city has treated small stretches of its streets with slurry seal since 2010. It has reported applying 150 of its 3,500 lane miles with the material in the past five years, and it is testing slurry seal treatments on roads in Waipahu.
But pavement preservation using such seals took off decades ago — during the 1970s recession when many U.S. cities had to find ways to keep streets in good condition so they could postpone costly repaving, said Tim Morris, regional sales manager for Crafco, a Chandler, Ariz.-based firm that sells pavement preservation products.
“We’re not breaking ground here,” Morris said on a recent sunny day on Paaaina Place in Pearl City while inspecting some of the crack seal samples with UH associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Ricardo Archilla.
“In most places, crack-sealing is an individual item” separate from slurry seal that cities use to treat roads, Morris said. “It’s part of a management program.”
Sasamura said the city is crafting that program now. It’s collecting data on how quickly the roads degrade so it knows when to have crews apply crack seal and slurry seal. “It will take more time to get all the data needed,” he said.
It’ll be another year or so before the initial results of the Pearl City and Waipahu studies are available. But to Archilla there’s no doubt that using those methods will help the city take better care of its roads than it’s doing now. “For me they can start tomorrow,” he said.