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Competition Can Help Our Roads Evolve

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The rate of evolution in highway products is very slow compared to electronic, medical or communication products. If you think back to the 1960s, roads today still have the same asphalt, concrete and signs.

In fact, we are still designing pavements based on the American Association of State Highwa and Transportation Officials' road tests of the early 1960s. On the other hand, if you compare cars, computers, household products and medical facilities to those of the 1960s, you see a much greater change.

I have always felt amazement at nature's brilliant selection process that advances the best and the fittest and rewards them with survival and a chance to pass on their genes to the next generation. No politics, no emotions, no favoritism.

It is clear from this analogy that we cannot have evolution in roads and highways without competition. While risk and reward guide biological evolution, there is no equivalent in roads and highways. We lack a system to evaluate, retain and promote good ideas and products. Without a system, what decides the fate of ideas?

The journey from a product's conception to its adoption as a standard practice includes initial development, testing and evaluation, marketing, pilot projects, short- and long-term performance evaluation of pilot projects, spec development and design. At the end of this cycle, which may take many years, the product may see the light of day. If industry is too vocal in opposing the product, it could die quickly. The process can be political because stakeholders are involved in making the decision. I have seen many good products cease due to political considerations and lack of agency endorsement.

As roads and highways are public-sector assets, they are managed with a set of rules that tend to specify a single product and facilitate bid comparison. Very little reward is given to finding better solutions. The risk of failure keeps many public officials from trying new products, slowing progress and delaying competition.

Leaving Comfort Zones

Due to the recent shortage in funding, road owners are starting to venture further from their comfort zone as it becomes clear that staying inside that zone is not sustainable. Many counties and municipalities have been slashing road maintenance funds by up to 75%. While budgets have been shrinking, the roads do not stop aging and deteriorating. Reality is setting in. Sustainability is becoming an issue.

There has to be a better process, one that can unleash the power of competition to drive down costs, minimize the risk of failure and balance each party's risk and reward.

Product warranties can shift the risk back to the product developer in return for profit potential. As long as the contractor provides a bonded performance warranty, a highway agency may open the door for competition and allow several products to compete and deviate from specifications. The owner would need to shift to performance specs from method specs.

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