Matanuska-Susitna Borough

Chipseal project, prudent test of road limits

Mat-Su | Patty Sullivan | Monday, August 14, 2006

PALMER-A research experiment on gravel roads is underway in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough that might make engineers set down their coffee. Three dusty roads here will lose their jarring potholes and get a hard surface of chipseal. Rather than haul in tons of gravel, the contractor is sealing the hard surface on top of native rock alone.

That's pushing the rules of road making, according to Leif Kopperud, the Borough's construction inspector for the project. "It's predictable to engineer something to twice what it needs and predict the results. You know your car will hold four people and won't collapse," Kopperud said. "In this case, we don't know what's going to happen and we chose to take some risk because of the pickle we're in."

Accepting the calculated risks, Kopperud says, might be the only way that many of the Borough's 600 miles of gravel roads ever see pavement. Chipseal, at $60,000 per mile, costs much less than the traditional pavement of asphalt cement at $200,000 per mile. On top of that, asphalt cement requires expensive road preparation, upping the costs to about $1 million per mile.

"There are lots of long dusty gravel roads in the MAT-SU," Kopperud said. "There will never be enough money to pave them. This is not for downtown Palmer, Wasilla or the Parks Highway. This is what America has found to use on its rural roads."

The chipseal surface, itself, is bucking popular opinion. Alaskans, in general, don't believe in chipseal, despite the innovations it underwent in the 1990s.

"The technology has changed, the equipment has changed," said John Light, owner of Western Construction and Equipment, one of the few contractors who "shoots" chipseal in Southcentral. "A computerized rate-controlled chipper and distributor lays the chips now, spreading 50 percent less chips than in the past." The Borough contracted with Light's company to pave the three gravel roads: Buttercup Drive, S. Echo Lake Drive, and Crystal Lake Road.

Each has different characteristics. In Meadow Lakes, Buttercup Drive is a structurally sound road with a deep bed of gravel and heavy commercial truck traffic. Buttercup is located in a "melancholy" climate, neither too cold nor hot. In Big Lake, S. Echo Lake Road is made from less-than-desirable materials, is used mildly, and serves subdivisions. Crystal Lake Road is an old road bed coping with Willow's subzero temperatures.

The Borough has recruited the University of Alaska Fairbanks to put science behind the project. Researcher Robert McHattie is studying the roads for the Transportation Research Center. The study costs about $28,000, and is split between the University and the Borough. "I'm going to find out how stiff an existing gravel road has to be to make the surface treatment work. I'll find those lower limits. If the Borough can go out and pave existing roads it can save an awful lot of money," McHattie said.

Today, chipseal is laid on rural roads across the Lower 48 but used scarcely at all in Alaska. In part, it's fighting an image problem from the past: too many loose rocks were tossed onto windshields, the road turned tacky when the sun warmed up its oils.

But it's a new hard surface. "It's evolved into a very sophisticated product," Kopperud said. "It's a water-emulsified, polymer-added, rubberized asphalt." In simple terms, rubber and polymers were added to make chipseal become more of a resilient membrane to keep out its enemy, ever invasive water. Chipseal is also more elastic and less susceptible to the cracking that results when asphalt cement has a run in with the weather. So there's less maintenance costs. Depending on its use, a chipsealed road might not need repairs for five years, which drastically lightens the load for the Borough's small road supervisor crew. Three supervisors manage about 1,000 miles of road.

The chipseal maintenance costs also beat out the upkeep costs for a gravel road. There's no constant grading to remove potholes, no watering, the benefits of which last for only two to three days, and there's no need for the increasingly rare product of calcium chloride to combat the dust. This year more than $532,462 was spent in the Borough on calcium chloride. From talk with Canadian road crews, Kopperud estimates that one mile of gravel road loses 100 tons of dust per year. The dust holds the road together. "Otherwise it's just marbles in the road prism," he said. Dust is also a hazard on many fronts, on health, the environment, and safety. One of the many complaints to the Public Works Department comes from residents with breathing problems living next to a road choked with dust. Dust clouds are also whipped up dense enough here that sometimes visibility on the road is sketchy. With the hard surface of chipseal, the dust hazard and expense disappears.

The savings comes at a critical time for Jim Norcross, chairman of the Greater Willow Road Service Area. Willow is but one of 16 road service areas in the Borough. For roads outside of the three cities, the RSAs are why Borough roads get plowed, paved, and repairs like new culverts. Property owners in each RSA pay taxes specific to their RSA for such service. But because of the new tax revenue cap, the amount of revenue that can be collected is growing at a slower rate than the cost for maintenance. Norcross said contracts have gone up 60 percent across the board. Seeing the fiscal pinch ahead, the Willow board is asking RSA voters to return its levy to last year's mill rate in the next election. Norcross was a driving force behind the chipseal project.

"We could burn up a lot of money every spring putting down calcium chloride for dust control," said Norcross. "If we go with chipseal we only have to go back every five years. It's more expensive initially but over the long haul it may not be." It's not more expensive than paving with asphalt cement, however. Norcross estimates his RSA saves three to one on paving.

The project began three and a half years ago, but got traction only this summer. One of the projects got a state grant. The state owns two miles of the three-mile Crystal Lake Road. The Borough maintains it, but Norcross said the state provides 95 percent of the traffic, given the popular fishing grounds the road leads to at the W. Deshka Landing Road. Norcross said there was no push at the state until Sen. Charlie Huggins was appointed.

Sen. Huggins said he investigated the benefits of chipseal himself by going to the lab in Fairbanks. "If we provide $85,000, what we get out of that, what a deal," Huggins said. "It allowed me to partner with the RSA. And by virtue of the Borough's matching funds, as entities, we are able to create something together," Huggins said.

Norcross is especially aware of the latitude given for the experimental project, not only by Sen. Huggins but he said also by Borough Manager John Duffy, Public Works Director Keith Rountree, Inspector Kopperud, and Project Manager Chuck Kaucic. All, he said, were willing to try something different. Operations and Maintenance Division Manager Chuck Braun, Road Maintenance Superintendent Mike Lachelt, and Purchasing Officer Russ Krafft were also among those testing conventional wisdom, Kopperud said.

"It's all in the Alaskan spirit," Kopperud said. "We can try something that no one else is doing, and make it work for the taxpayer."

The Willow Road was expected to be done this week, but the rainy season has interrupted the work until likely next year. The other two roads are already completed. The costs are broken down in the following.
Buttercup Drive, 3,300 feet, total $57,058. CIP funds: $32,834; Borough matching dust control funds: $20,250; RSA operating funds $3,974.
Echo Lake Road, 0.7 mile, total $93,860. CIP funds: $51,250; Borough matching: $25,500; RSA: $17,110.
Crystal Lake Road, three miles, total is $222,266. CIP funds: $21,500; Borough matching: $94,384; RSA: $12,683; state grant: $85,000.

The contract amount awarded to Western Construction with change orders to date is $358,185.

For more information, contact Construction Inspector Leif Kopperud at 745-9817.