Section of county’s new $1.5 million road crumbles

By Traci Chapman
Published on June 28, 2008

A section of a $1.5 million road project completed last week by District 2 County Commissioner Don Young is already buckling.

The estimated 30-foot section is part of a 15-mile asphalt overlay that starts on the south side of the El Reno Regional Airport and runs south to Union City and west from the airpark to Heaston.

While failures can happen immediately after asphalt is laid, District 1 Commissioner Phil Carson said generally such issues are minor. Carson said failures are often the result of inadequate road preparation.

“Failures now — when there hasn’t been any rain or inclement weather — are troubling because generally you get cracks in asphalt with water and freezing temperatures,” Carson said. “Once it cracks, it lets moisture through to the base.

“The whole strength of your road is the base. If that’s not done properly, if you don’t have a good base and good drainage, you will have failures.”

Young said he learned of the damage Thursday, but he had not yet had a chance to investigate the cause of the failure. Working as his own road foreman — a job he said he has assumed since the death of county employee Larry Orr in January — he would need to “dig out” the area to determine what went wrong.

“I was hoping I could get this fixed before it came out, but I had a feeling someone would report it right away,” he said.

Young disputed the severity of the failure, saying, “I think I did pretty well to have just this one part over 15 miles.” Young estimated the damage ran about 30 feet. He said he went to the site Friday morning and confirmed a truck traveled on the roadway too soon, causing the damage.

“I dug out the section, and it wasn’t anything that was my fault,” he said. “A large truck came through before the road was completely set and went too far over on that shoulder, which caused it to crack. They are getting it fixed right away.”

Carson said the proper method for laying asphalt is to dig up the existing base, stabilize it and pack it down, and then lay the new asphalt surface on the prepared surface.

“Let’s say you put one mile of 2 1\2 to 3 inches of asphalt coat on the road, but you don’t prepare the base and pack it down,” he said. “Any existing problems you had, anything in the road — you’re just covering those problems up, not addressing them. It’s only a matter of time, and usually not much time, before those problems come back up to the surface.”

Pictures taken Thursday show large chunks of asphalt broken off, both on the old roadway and along the bar ditch running next to it. District 3 Commissioner Grant Hedrick said grass found under the broken roadway is part of the problem.

“That grass is deteriorating — you can’t leave anything that is going to deteriorate under the road,” he said. “It creates an air gap that will cause holes and then cause failure. The only way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to blade the grass back, away from the area you are laying the asphalt.”

El Reno Mayor Matt White, who said he examined the failed section, agreed.

“He (Young) didn’t kill the grass. He just threw down gypsum or whatever patching material he had, and didn’t stabilize and pack the base,” White said. “This is the problem when you’re trying to do something quick and fast. If you took enough time and used the proper materials, like fly ash or kiln dust, you would have a road that would be worth the time and money you spent on it. As it is, you have a $1.5 million road that will cost the county — and who knows how much — money to do it right.”

Young paid the first of a total of $1.5 million to Schwartz Asphalt in April, and he said the project is “down to the wire” trying to get it completed by July 1. Oklahoma law allows Young to spend only 50 percent of any funds remaining in his coffers as of that date because he did not seek re-election. State statutes further dictate any funds spent by the outgoing commissioner as of June 4 — the last day he could have filed his intention to run — may only be for “normal or routine operating expenditures.”

The last-minute rush to complete the project was not because the District 2 road crew waited until the last minute to complete road preparations, but was instead, the result of equipment problems suffered by Schwartz Asphalt, Young said.

“They got a new plant, and they’ve had a lot of problems,” he said. “They promised to have everything done, and I know they have been working on it. My crews have been working on the soft spots all spring.”

Young disagreed with Carson, Hedrick, White and Mike Hinkson, a local government specialist with the Local Technical Assistance Program, which provides training and the roads scholar program to counties across the state. Hinkson said last week it was necessary to stabilize the road base first, before laying asphalt on it.

“You’ve got to dig that mess out or you’ll have the road falling apart from underneath,” he said. “If you don’t grind and stabilize the base, it lets the moisture into it, it can’t dry out, and it won’t last, especially on heavily traveled roads.”

Young said his 18 years’ experience as a county commissioner gave him enough insight to know the best way to complete the job.

“Engineers tell you to tear it up and relay the whole thing. I don’t agree with that. We dug out the soft places, filled and stabilized the base, then we’ll lay asphalt and seal it,” he said. “I choose to save the residents’ money and let mother nature do the packing of our road materials. She does a better job of packing that down than I do.”

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