The state Department of Transportation is investigating why a $2.8 million project to enhance wet-weather safety on Passaic County roads has gone so wrong.
In the summer of 2017, the county covered 16 miles of county-maintained curves in Bloomingdale, Ringwood, Wanaque and West Milford with a high-friction surface treatment. That sandpaper-like treatment has already chipped and flaked off, leaving behind a patchwork of shallow craters.
A forensic investigation is being conducted in cooperation with The Rutgers Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation, said state transportation department spokesman Daniel Triana.
“The results of the investigation will help determine the best long-term course of action,” he said.
The results are expected in mid-August.
The state and county, in the meantime, will move forward with a state-funded project to mill and resurface the affected areas along Glenwild Avenue, Ringwood Avenue and Greenwood Lake Turnpike with standard asphalt, said Keith Furlong, spokesman for the county’s engineering division.
It would be wise to put the high-friction surface treatment projects on hold, said Bloomingdale Mayor Jonathan Dunleavy. It may take a while to determine what caused the failure and how to prevent it from happening again, he said.
“Even before the failure, I got complaints from people not really understanding what the purpose was,” Dunleavy said of the treatment.
High-friction surface treatments coat pavement with adhesive and a fine aggregate to increase traction at a cost of about $25 to $50 per square yard, according to Federal Highway Administration records.
Some of the complaints by drivers using the treated surface include louder vehicle cabin noise and the wearing down of tires on the gravel.
The gravel, though, doubles the coefficient of friction on the roads and saves lives, said Cliff Wilson, director of operations for the project contractor Statewide Striping Corp.
The Parsippany-based contractor has executed about 50 high-friction projects in the last five years, Wilson said. The failures in upper Passaic County are unprecedented, he added.
“As far as we’re concerned, the product was put down properly and it’s the proper product,” Wilson said. “If it was our fault, we’ll make sure we’ll fix it. We’ll make sure it’s done right, even if we have to pay for it.”
County engineers suspect the coating detached from the road surface due to a failure of the underlying pavement, rather than a result of misapplication, plowing or winter damage, said Furlong. Specifically, the problem may have been the result of different contraction rates between the pavement and the high-friction surface treatment, he said.
Dunleavy said the flaking is far more pronounced in Ringwood and West Milford, where the roads were already rougher than they were in Bloomingdale. Still, he said he hears the complaints.
“We had beautifully paved roads. Bicyclists loved them,” Dunleavy said. “It’s the kind of thing that puts a black eye on government. You’re spending money and disrupting what’s already in a good condition.”
Jon Sherwood, a cyclist from West Milford, said the treated roads are bone rattling, tire-grinding and to be avoided at all costs. Luckily, the treatment is restricted to turns and rarely extends to road shoulders in many areas, Sherwood said.
“If I can, I’ll map my route around those areas,” Sherwood said. “It’s awful riding on that stuff.”
Despite the negatives, trial projects in the last few decades have shown notable decreases in wet-weather crashes following surface treatments.
Studies in New York have found treatments can reduce wet-road crashes by 50 percent. A November 2010 project on a highway interchange ramp in Kentucky reduced the number of crashes from 17 wet weather crashes in the three years prior to none in the following three years, administration records show.
In New Jersey, the Department of Transportation has successfully treated potential high-crash sections of state highways including Route 130, Route 17, Route 50 and Exit 12 and 53 ramps on Route 80, Triana said.
The treatment is one of nine safety countermeasures identified and developed by the Federal Highway Administration that can dramatically reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities, he said.
“Some states have experienced crash reductions as high as 50 to 100 percent at specific sites,” Triana said.
In most cases, the less than one-inch-thick coating has a lifespan of roughly 10 years under light traffic, Triana said. Estimates are that less than 1,000 of the 100,000 square yards of product applied to upper Passaic County roads has failed in less than one year, Furlong said.
The product used in the project, an epoxy with a calcined bauxite aggregate, was required by the NJDOT. However, it was not the original product specified by the county, Furlong said.
Records show NJDOT officials rejected the initial plan to utilize a different product, Endurablend, in a project that would have cost $5.2 million.
Created by Atlanta’s Tensar International, Endurablend is “highly flowable to ensure ease of penetration into cracks, voids and surface irregularities,” according to the company website. The company documents claim the product also manages extreme thermal activity better than epoxy-based products.
Endurablend has been used by Statewide Striping Corp. for crosswalks and bus lanes. However, Endurablend has yet to be approved by the state for high-friction surface treatment applications, Wilson said.
“The proprietary material did not meet the Federal Highway Administration and NJDOT specification requirements for skid resistance,” Triana said.
Statewide Striping was the sole bidder for a contract to apply Endurablend in the project area. The company was also the lowest of seven bidders for the completed project using the state-approved product.
County officials initially predicted the project for upper Passaic County would cost nearly $5.4 million.
County freeholders accepted $5.5 million for high friction treatments from the Department of Transportation for a North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority project in October 2016, records show. The $2.8 million contract was awarded to Statewide Striping in May 2017.