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Asphalt shortage detours road repairs

In the past, about 40 percent of a barrel of oil would be turned into asphalt products; now it's around 10 percent. In the past, about 40 percent of a barrel of oil would be turned into asphalt products; now it's around 10 percent. (Photos by Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)
Associated Press / November 10, 2008
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SEATTLE - Expect a bumpier drive. An asphalt shortage is delaying road maintenance projects nationwide. Asphalt is becoming scarce as US refiners overhaul their equipment to maximize output of highly profitable fuels such as diesel and gasoline, using inexpensive - and hard to process - crude oil.

To make things worse, refiners are also cutting back on production of a petrochemical that many states mix into asphalt to make roads more durable.

Dozens of road repairs were delayed last summer, and municipalities around the country may face another shortfall next summer. Road-maintenance projects that have gone forward cost significantly more, as the price of asphalt nearly tripled over the past year.

In Utah, as many as 50 road projects were delayed this summer by the asphalt shortage - including one for a highway that leads to one of the state's top tourist spots, Park City and its skiing resorts. Those delays add millions of dollars of extra costs, including labor.

"It strains an already strained budget," said Jim McMinimee, of the Utah Department of Transportation.

Municipalities in Alaska, New York, Colorado, Oklahoma, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, and Washington state also blamed road work delays on asphalt shortages.

In the past, about 40 percent of an oil barrel would be turned into asphalt products; now it's around 10 percent, McMinimee said.

Some states, including Colorado, have responded to the problem by reducing the amount of asphalt required to be poured on a street. Others have changed the chemical requirements of the asphalt they use.

Usually, these methods lead to a shorter life-span for the roads, said Ben Teplitz, who is a specialist on asphalt for Platts, a trade publication.

At the beginning of the year, a ton of asphalt was selling for about $300.

At one point the price rose above $800 per ton.

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