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Oahu behind the times, road repair experts say

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    Paaaina Place in Pearl City was one of the streets used in a study of asphalt treatments by the University of Hawaii, the city’s Department of Facility Maintenance and the Hawaii Asphalt Pavement Industry. The street was repaired using a “crack seal” method.


    Ricardo Archilla, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Hawaii, checks out a pothole on Ohohia Street near the airport. Archilla noted that the stress of heavy use and trucks were key factors in the asphalt’s poor condition.


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.


Asphalt is about 95 percent “aggregate” (small rocks) and 5 percent “binder” — the crude-oil-based glue that holds the rocks together.

Finding the perfect asphalt mix for a region is part art, part science, according to University of Texas associate professor Amit Bhasin. It’s similar to baking a cake: “You get one thing wrong and the whole thing blows up,” he said.

Unlike a cake, however, it could cost millions of dollars to fix a road if the mix or design turns out to be a bust.

The city and state have tried different blends of aggregate in recent years, asphalt suppliers say. The state has tried out different binder (glue) types in recent years, but the city’s binder has stayed the same, they add.

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.

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  • Hawaii taxpayers have been paying among the highest gas taxes in the nation, which is used for road maintenance. There is plenty of money flowing into the road funds. We should have gold plated roads.

    • Vehicle registration taxes were also raised significantly in recent years, enough for a second layer of gold. The more taxes government collect, the more they waste and squander.

      • The “un-skilledness” , ignorance , lack of education and bad attitude of the people employed is the main reasons for lack of progress and stifling of any ideas and initiative. Third World country equals Third World roads.!

        • It starts from the top. The “educated people” that “we” keep voting into office, then the “educated people” that are appointed by the other educated people, then the “educated people” that are in charge of telling the “uneducated people” what to do.

    • We in Hawaii are blessed with the most incompetent and clueless politicians, and we elect them time after time. (definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results). The 3rd world roads are symptomatic of our “system”. Paying for the same thing over and over and getting lousy results. And no one is blamed or made to pay. Look at the new road lane on H1 from Pearl City to Waipahu. Holes, rebar sticking up on this “new” addition and no one from the state says or does anything. Political donations are much more important for officials than upsetting the donors. As long as we the people keep voting in these incompetents we’ll get the same. Homelessness, low wages, million dollar + condos for the wealthy, etc.

      • This summer took a trip through LA, up to Portland, then to Spokane, through Idaho and then to Seattle then back down to San Fran for the flight home. At not one of these cities that we traveled through were the roads and potholes as bad as Honolulu. No where else even came close. What a shame for the people who run road repair in Hawaii. Make azz.

        • Tourist travel by roads on the mainland so it needs to be maintained for them to come. Here they come by plane. Bad roads reduces the speed and minimize accidents. I hate it that the roads are bad for our own good. With all the money they save they can fix all the damages on your car caused by the road for free.

    • Initially the gas tax is suppose to be for road maintenance/repairs. That was the sole purpose of this tax. But here is Hawaii, the gas tax goes into the “General Fund” which as we all know is spent frivolously by our State Officials/Politicians.

    • Just observe, record on video how state and county workers behave at a jobsite. Further, go and visit the city & county Roads Division, send someone in with a camera and record how these folks…work. Do the same with the State Highways Division. We need the state Auditor and City Auditor to go and do an extensive writeup on these Divisions. Better yet, we should create the equivalent of Internal Affairs with the authority to send in moles and catch all the lackadaisical effort and weed them out of the system.

    • Correct, just imagine if we had freezing weather with the water in those cracks and pot holes. “Oahu behind the times” WOW–that could cover an enormous number of issues here!!

  • Hmm, so this article implies that the state and city government’s intimations that Hawaii’s wet(ter) weather causes faster roadway deterioration is a disingenuous argument? Why am I not surprised? Premium prices and taxes for substandard results. Typical for this state in the area of infrastructure maintenance and other aspects of government. Disgusting.

    • I’ve driven fairly extensively on the roads in the Traverse City-Interlochen area of Michigan. In the winter, everything freezes solid. The roads there are a joy. Completely smooth and without potholes. What’s our excuse?

        • The money all goes into the General Fund to be divided up across all expenses in the budget process. The idea that gas taxes and vehicle registration fees goes into some sort of “locked box” or dedicated fund specifically for transportation purposes is a big myth perpetuated by the politicians at all levels to make us feel good about being taxed. (Oh, Ok that’s a good tax if it is going to improve .

  • The report cites Arizona as having quality roads which is a hoot. I don’t believe they have ever driven on Tucson’s roads which is as bad as you’ll find anywhere. My question is where is the money budgeted for road maintenance?

  • Here in Austin, Texas the roads are immaculate. Every few years a thin layer of soft film is laid over the road to keep the moisture out. No potholes, no cracks to maneuver around. And the annual registration for my Highlander is only $75.

  • Here’s another reason our roads are in such terrible shape: When the roads are cut for underground utility work, the patching done after the work is poorly done. There seems to be no standard for compacting the fill and the pavement patches. The patches often sink below the road surface or–when too much fill and pavement is applied–create a hump. Nearly 30 years ago I worked with road and underground utility contractors in Montana who had to meet exacting standards for compaction and resurfacing. The approach here seems to be, “Eh…good enough, yeah?” Thus, we wind up with recently paved roads being destroyed shortly after they are paved. A case in point: Waialae Ave. between Kokohead and about 15th street.

  • DOT lost Galehouse 2008 maintenance recommendation! Caldwell is going to form a group to develop a maintenance program?! (Here we go again, government’s involvement doomed to failure not even being able to locate the 2008 file.) It seems to me the less expensive and practical option would be to ask Galehouse to duplicate their original recommendation, if not by reprinting which they surely must have in file, or by memory as a guideline, or duplicate what they’ve counseled other states. (Could it be those highway funds have been re-directed to the rail project?) We at least deserve an explanation why that isn’t being done.

  • This article is about lack of street and highway maintenance, but the same could be said about government building and other public facilities. Hawaii is great at building things, but when it comes to maintenance, it seems to be an alien concept.

    • Interesting you say this, BluesBreaker. By your statement we can expect the same “alien concept” when it comes to maintaining Rail after it is operational. Mahalo nui for verifying what many of us have been saying for years.

    • BluesBreaker – Which is exactly what will happen to rail. Within months of opening day, there will be breakdowns with rail (Remember the Zip Mobile’s recent maintenance fiasco) which will shut down the entire system. All it takes is one train to completely break down to bring the entire rail system to a standstill. Especially if the brakes or anything to do with the wheels breaks, you have a brick on the track.

      Will not be long before our bureaucrats will come back to taxpayers saying they need to increase property taxes 5% every year to cover the increasing, crushing cost of rail’s yearly O&M costs, union related expenses. Exactly what happened to bay area taxpayers with their ongoing BART debacle.

    • Nei union contracts strictly prohibit any procedures or processes which would reduce the working hours of dues paying union members.

      Exactly why preventive maintenance is not done as it would reduce working time for dues paying union members.

    • Watched some learning channel show about Dusseldorf airport repaving one runway in about ONE day! Not only did they dig out the old runway, the thickness of the runway is DOUBLE for cars AND they did a bomb check to make sure unexploded WW2 bombs are not found underneath the runway. They optimized the entire process and according to the narrator, what the Germans did in repaving their runway in one day would have taken 4-5 days for a US road crew and probably for Hawaii DOT about 2-3 MONTHS. TV is educational and despite all the BS about “rain delays” you learn that places around the world can repave roads in days compared to Hawaii DOT taking MONTHS. Water can be bad on roads but it is not nearly as destructive as ice because if the road is not properly designed the water will permeate the gravel and then expand and destroy the asphalt surface from within. In Hawaii it NEVER freezes so ice is never an issue and the negative effects of just liquid water can be prevented using the sealant. Oh wait, Oahu roads NEVER uses the sealant. If they cannot maintain roads, maintain a steel structured stadium, can barely keep a Zipmobile in working order, what makes anyone think they can maintain a steel on steel train, in Oahu’s year round corrosive salt air environment where everyone in Hawaii has ZERO experience in electric powered train maintenance? Actually this is a rhetorical question. The train will fall apart not long after the open it up to the public and the maintenance cost alone will be about 200 MILLION per year forever, and that is NOT including the cost of electricity or maintenance costs to maintain the new power station that has to be built just for the train.

  • They are going to “STUDY” THIS FOR ANOTHER YEAR! It’s not that difficult to do. It has been done all other this island for decades.Maybe our Mayor and his directors don’t watch TV and those sealmaster commercials. Throwing that asphalt into a hole is a joke. Without some prep work such as some sealant into the hole first is like putting a bandage on a wet finger- it’s gonna come off!

    • “Study” for our utterly clueless and backwards DoT means watching new movies and shows on Netflix while using state computers.

      Gotta laugh how DoT director Ed Sniffen went running to hide when asked to comment on our roads. With no real experience in road maintenance he knows his limitations.

  • It all comes down to the “good enough” attitude. Tired of this “no need good enough” banter. Hows about “do it right and maintain it properly”!

  • Wow, the apparent incompetence, indifference, arrogance, and bureaucracy are mind-boggling and to top it off they refuse to explain to the media and public when questioned (but no surprise there).

  • Improved road patching using better materials and techniques won’t be done in Hawaii because it’s a matter of job security. Doing a sloppy job means that the road crews will always have a job because the patching will only last till the next big rainstorm, and the cycle continues. Shoveling some hot mix into a pothole and tapping it down with a shovel is a joke! Cauldwell and Ige need to do a better job!

    • NOPE! NO WAY. But it is the City’s responsibility, not the State’s, and the City will increase excise and property taxes as a pretense to doing so.

  • Just too busy playing Choo Choo trains to take care of needed repairs to other infrastructure. And yet we’re being taxed into oblivion. Someone see the light in honolulu hale.

  • Job security: build roads so they become damaged faster and thus need constant fixes (pothole repairs) or major repaving. Who benefits? Follow the money. 🙂

  • The consultant didn’t say DOT didn’t have enough resources, he said you are not using what you have correctly. Then Tim Sakahara comes out with the stock excuse of not having enough resources. He is urinating on our leg and trying to convince us its raining.

  • This is not news. Back in the 80s there were articles about the need to revise the materials that were being used on our roads in order to better preserve them. Nothing came of that. So here we are again. If we are so concerned about the “limited budgets” our transportation departments receive, doesn’t it make sense to find solutions that won’t necessitate repeated treatments of the same problem spots? In hawaii we seem to be addicted to patching…we’re doing the same thing with the homeless…revisiting the same places with the same tactics, over and over instead of coming up with real solutions.

  • This is what happens when there is management who are not qualified to do their jobs. Just sit on their butts all day long day after day, month after month and year after year. Next you know 20 years have gone by.

  • This article is really painful to read and downright upsetting. Where ar our government representatives in this whole problem? Out promoting a pet project that only benefits a certain segment of our society? This is such a pervasive problem. Excuses regarding budget keeps floating but if the trained their workers (assuming that these workers are on the same page and care about their workmanship). That goes all the way up to supervisors who hav neglected to do their jobs. Union wrangling?

  • “Never seen the report” says the DOT Spokesman. Is that what they told him to say? Ha! It should be they were too lazy to read it and give it some consideration. So we are 10 yrs behind and it will be next year before the results for some deterioration survey comes in. What a crock!

  • This state is behind times in every area, except raising taxes. To make matters worst, Hawaii is also the #1 welfare state in the nation.
    It is high time to legalize gambling to pay for their hand outs and incompetent work force run by greedy unions.

  • Critical agenda item for State. Wouldn’t some amount of cooperation work with the City?

    Not being able to find the report and being so far behind of other States in America speaks volumes about the need for change.

    People should demand change. Especially in light of proposed tax increases. Ige needs to address this now.

  • When the DOT spokesperson claims that the state DOT is hampered by budge constraints, he is just so full of it. The DOT is one of the few state agencies that has money up the yin yang
    as they have vast amounts of money from gasoline and other fuel taxes, airport landing fees and harbor fees and other taxes and fees. The problem is how and where the money is spent, not the lack of money.
    When I was growing up on a neighbor island, it was common to see road crews oiling the roads which worked to seal them and make the roads last longer. This is no longer being done and
    this kind of preventative work was stopped long ago. Also the asphalt laid down in those days on the roadways was 3 or 4 times thicker than today. I saw that the asphalt layer was
    often 5 or 6 inches thick. This was when the paving was done by large mechanical roller machines after the asphalt was spread on the roadway by a bulldozer type machine.
    Today, the grinding of the old asphalt is done by a grinding machine which also then lays down a layer of asphalt. While this a speedy way of doing the work, the layer of asphalt laid down is
    very thin, possibly no more than 2 or 3 inches thick which is why the asphalt wears out rather quickly and potholes appear very quickly.
    It kind of makes me wonder if this is being done on purpose so that the roads are constantly in need of repair which translates into jobs for the paving companies. A nice way to hand out
    the goodies, I suppose. So you may never see the roads being built or maintained as they should because it means guarantee work for these companies and allows politicians to reward their
    friends, uh I mean supporters.

  • Any jurisdiction run by one political party will always have the same results as we have in Hawaii. Roads are only one example of the incompetence of a government controlled by one political party. Just about every aspect of government service (or disservice in the instant case) is a continuing circus of incompetence.

  • Been driving on the mainland since 1951 and have noticed that bad roadways are more pronounced on residential streets where the specs are not as restrictive as city commercial and the US highway systems. Its all in the make-up of the roadbed. Poor base spell constant repair, plus lack of enforcement of weight/axles enforcement. On US and some State highways there are weigh stations to monitor compliance. Problem Hawaii has is that, a once residential area evolved into a commercial zone and the roadway were not designed for the change. Thus the breakdown of city streets. With respect to State H-1, weight/axle enforcement is lacking causing roadway to crumble.

  • As a retired civil engineer (PE) who managed Public Works projects for city of Seattle. These include both asphalt paving and repair and concrete paving. I have watched Hawaiian workers patching streets here in Hawaii where I have visited every year since 1985, and can honestly tell you that if I saw that kind of performance while working in Seattle, I would be sending the contractor’s staff or city employees back to the office to get some training on how to do their jobs. I have never had to do that in all my years in Seattle. I have watched Hawaiian employees patching pot holes by dumping medium to cold asphalt (?) into potholes full of water. I have watched them shovel that mix into a pothole and then smack it down with a shovel and then speed away to the next pothole. Seems they are trying to maximize the number of potholes filled rather than doing an adequate job.
    After reading the article on this subject in this mornings Honolulu Adviser and seeing that government agencies are not responding to requests for information or to provide a supervisor for questions, it seems to me that those in charge need to be put out to find other means of employment.
    I guess that is what you get when you keep electing those leaders that you continue to elect. Please vote for change.

    • Are all important documents required to be physically mailed via courier with receipt acknowledgement?

      There should be email (encrypted, of course) acknowledged with a read receipt. Encryption is easily implemented, so that should not be any problem. There are numerous digital alternatives for communication available.

      Hope that as the new computer system is implemented at DOT, that their security policies are documented, implemented, and enforced. Hopefully, whoever is implementing the new system, cloud computing is implemented wherever possible.

      • Oh well, guess it does sound a little silly to be looking to things like certified mail acknowledgements, emails receipts, etc.

        After all, at the end of the day, it comes down to people, doing their jobs, being accountable. Sure, things are easy in hindsight, sitting behind your computer. But, if there are problems, they need to be corrected.

        And, there needs to be accountability. Making sure that memos like the one from Galehouse are acted upon promptly and diligently. Not filed away somewhere so you can’t find it when you need it. Making sure that actions are taken within policy guidelines.

        And if these things are not happening, there needs to be periodic audits to ensure that policies are followed. And if it keeps recurring, there needs to be consequences.

        So, at the end of the day, it matters not who is elected if that person does not take these issues seriously and does not take necessary steps to enforce change, to do things better.

  • Hawaii government does NOT properly maintain anything – not just the roads, but public buildings, schools, equipment, computers, and just about everything they own. It starts at the top – the directors, senior managers, and all the way down to foremen and the workers themselves. They are all ignorant and inept.

  • Our understanding is that some lawmakers want the federal gas tax repealed and delegate that responsibility back to the state level, so they have more latitude on how those funds are spent. Their argument is that politics often play a role in how federal funds are allocated to each state, and often, those funds are diverted to other uses.

    There is, of course, other sides to this argument. However, in any case, it goes without saying that things can be done better. There are better ways to do things than diverting funds for other uses. If there are no changes at the federal level, then that responsibility falls on each state.

    It is time for changes at DOT. Things can be done better is an understatement. When we make this a priority, there will be no shortage of work. So, everyone needs to be proactive and make your view known to both the State and City.

    If these kinds of situations are allowed to continue, we should be very worried about the vision for TOD and rail. Government and the prevailing culture, especially in DOT, needs to change. We can’t afford to do things any other way.

  • In a word, it is “leadership”. We do not have competent political leadership and we do not have it in the leaders of our engineering departments and agencies. This is not rocket science, we just need to collect, maintain and manage data, prioritize what we need to do and just do it. All the leaders incolved are letting the people of Hawaii down, and the people of Hawaii need to demand more.

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