It's been a year since the federal government passed its $787 billion stimulus package to help rebuild our nation and the economy. But in my travels, I've only met a handful of producers who believe they may have benefited. It's fair to suggest that durability, strength, and performance count little when they must fit into a shovel-ready world.

There are many valid reasons why concrete producers have not benefited so far. Many state departments of transportation were not ready to let projects that included many yards of concrete. Others had been so behind on maintenance, that roads needed to be patched back into serviceable condition. And some suggest that the present prescriptive method of concrete engineering requires too much lead time to spend money on concrete.

But one reason we missed out on some of the shovel-ready spending is that we often don't think outside of our form. Let me offer one concrete example: sidewalks.

At the January meeting of the Illinois Ready Mixed Concrete Association, a materials engineer from the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) told a roomful of producers some bad news. While Illinois planned to spend millions of dollars on transportation improvements in the current fiscal year, only a small percentage of the funds were dedicated to concrete projects.

While most attendees realized that the engineer was just the messenger of bad news they already knew, producers' enthusiasm in the room quickly waned. Sensing the sudden mood change, an associate from IDOT's planning department stepped up to the podium to help the materials engineer. The associate tried to explain the department's current dilemma. And he did offer some hope by referencing a recently constructed white-topping paving project that had been successfully completed. Based on its success, IDOT had included a few whitetopping projects in the new budget.

He also urged producers to be more proactive in the shovel-ready bid process and he told them to look at the upcoming projects with a new perspective. He urged producers to review each proposed project in their areas to see if sidewalks had been included. If they had not been, the associate suggested the producer should urge the department to add sidewalks to the contract specification. Often substantial amounts of allocated federal funding is left unspent because there wasn't the time or interest to include new or updated sidewalks in the original proposal.

Perhaps I was ahead of the times on this topic. In January 2007, I wrote an article titled “Paving a New Path.” I described how producers could create safer alternative bike, walk, and school paths. From what the IDOT representative said last month, most DOTs look at bikeways and sidewalks as shovel-ready projects requiring little real design and little need for right-of-way purchase.

Upgrading sidewalks and paths isn't just for ready-mixed producers. Often these upgrades require new box culverts, short-span bridges, and other upgrades that benefit precast producers.

I urge you to heed the engineer's advice. If the shovel-ready system of project letting isn't allowing you to be on the mainline of DOT expenditures, take another path to profit.

Editor in Chief

ryelton@hanleywood.com