Marc Herbst is executive director of the Long Island Contractors' Association.
Asphalt - that hot steaming mass of mixed petroleum and aggregate - remains the stuff that people love to hate. It smells terrible to manufacture, but without it transportation on Long Island would grind to a halt. Still, to no one's surprise, its manufacture has become a noisy sideshow in what promises to be a memorable political year.
As every driver knows, cars, trucks and buses would repeatedly shatter their shock and strut systems were towns and counties to ignore repaving their roads with this contentious mixture. Municipal and state governments remain the largest customers for asphalt, and they are also the ones setting the standards, specifications and regulations for its production. Essentially, the firms running the asphalt plants are told what to produce and how to produce it to meet the requirements of local highway departments.
There are advances in asphalt manufacturing that could allow it to be manufactured smarter, greener and more efficiently - but that requires political leadership from those who order up the product. In a sense, asphalt makers and civic groups are allies on this issue, because both want changes in how asphalt is produced.
As far back as the summer of 2008, the Long Island Contractors' Association has made recommendations regarding how to lower the petroleum consumption required during asphalt production. It was part of a series of proposals to Nassau County town supervisors that included suggestions for using more recycled materials and lowering plant emissions. We also appeared before the Suffolk County town supervisors with a similar agenda. Municipal leaders were briefed that changes were possible at asphalt plants - changes that would assist the environment and the taxpayer. But more than two years later, outside of Babylon Town, little progress has been made.
The contractors' association has stepped up its advocacy of standardized specifications and monitoring for the products produced at Long Island's 16 asphalt plants. For instance, a transition from today's standard hot mix asphalt to a warm mix would produce fewer emissions and require less fuel consumption, since the chemistry required to create this change is less energy-intensive. Additionally, following the lead of neighboring New York City, local governments should enact bid specifications that allow greater use of recycled asphalt product in the making of road-ready asphalt - the city allows 40 percent recycled material, while most of our municipalities permit less than 15 percent. These changes, along with oversight, would ensure that taxpayers, the environment and asphalt plant neighbors will be better protected.
Meanwhile, the State Legislature should vote to fund a study to bring down asphalt emissions, control costs and introduce new recycling technology - proposals that so far have been met with indifference. Instead, grassroots leadership is emerging through a coalition of civic associations and the asphalt industry, since the local communities recognize that asphalt manufacturing isn't going away, but technological innovation could address many of their complaints.
David Staton, a Hicksville civic leader who is a veteran of the civic-asphalt plant wars, recently spoke at a Hauppauge public meeting on this issue. Known for his candor, Staton told the assembly that community groups shouldn't rely on the actions and promises of public officials when it comes to this issue, but instead take matters into their own hands by working directly with the plant operators to find effective solutions.
In the end, posturing against local asphalt manufacturing is neither helpful nor constructive - its role literally ties the Long Island economy together. Rather, genuine government leadership requires the approval of specific actions, from harnessing existing recycling technology to creating operational standards that protect the community, the motoring public and our environment.