‘Chip seal’ to ease cost of road maintenance 

A rougher, noisier ride could be in store for drivers and bicyclists — at least temporarily — as the county tests a new cost-saving road-repair program.

Road crews plan to apply "chip seal" on 20 miles of asphalt roads in unincorporated San Mateo County for the first time beginning this summer, according to officials. If successful, the program could be expanded to other parts of the county’s 316-mile roadway system.

Chip seal — a mixture of gravel and petroleum used to weatherproof roads — depends less on petroleum than other sealants and takes about half the time to apply, resulting in big savings at a time of skyrocketing fuel and labor prices, according to David Clarke, San Mateo County acting public works director.

Such savings couldn’t come at a better time. Paving asphalt prices rose from $150 per ton in 2003 to more than $360 perton in 2006, Clarke said. Overall material and labor costs for road repairs have risen 175 percent during the same time period, according to Caltrans.

County roads, especially those in rural areas, have suffered in the face of escalating costs and a drop in the county’s road fund from $13.3 million in 2001 to $11.9 million in 2006, Clarke said. The drop in funding is primarily due to the fact that the state’s 18-cent sales tax on gas has not been increased since 1995, while cars are becoming more efficient and using less gas, officials said.

The lack of funding has reduced the county’s sealing efforts from 45 miles per year about four years ago to zero in 2006, Clarke said.

Cost savings is a major benefit of chip seal — estimated to save more than $7 million on 20 miles of road compared to other options — but it leaves more gravel exposed at the surface, creating a choppier, nosier ride until it is worn down, Clarke said.

"After the first week you probably won’t notice [the roughness and noise] much at all," Clarke said.

Gladwyn D’Souza, a land-use expert with the Peninsula Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition, wasn’t so sure, however.

"It results in a much rougher ride for bicyclists, which can be uncomfortable, especially on a 15-20 mile ride," he said.

Ginger Holt, an Alpine Road resident who lives near where some of the work is scheduled, was encouraged by the news that resurfacing would occur. The last time she was on Alpine, between Skyline Boulevard and Portola State Park Road, it wasn’t in good shape, she said.

Another benefit to chip seal, which has been used widely and with success in Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties, is that drivers will be able to use the road almost immediately after application, rather than waiting 24 hours for the sealant to dry as is typical, Clarke said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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