Tuesday, Aug. 23, was not a beautiful, sunny morning in Bridgeview, Ill., just south of Chicago. A threat of rain was in the air as about 150 local highway and public works officials gathered to learn about roller-compacted concrete (RCC).
Jerry Larson woke up especially early that day to drive three hours from his home in Indianapolis to address the gathering, which was sponsored by the American Public Works Association. “This is not your conventional concrete,” Larson told the group. “This is pavement. It must be dry enough to support a vibratory roller, yet wet enough to permit proper distribution of paste. Also, ready-mix trucks can produce the necessary volumes.”
Traveling throughout the Hoosier state, and in this case to nearby Illinois, is not unusual for Larson, the executive director of the Indiana Ready Mixed Concrete Association (IRMCA). “RCC is growing everyday,” he says. “I get more calls from people who want to hear about it. We do a lot of training with folks to get them tuned in to it. I keep it simple and understandable. I kind of know the things they want to hear.”
Indeed, Larson should feel comfortable in a room of people who build and maintain roads for a living. He worked for the Tipton County (Ind.) Highway Department for 15 years and was its director from 1992 to 2001. This makes his journey to concrete unusual because what was the material of choice for Tipton County? Asphalt.
It has been a winding road that led Larson to Bridgeview this stormy summer morning. And as anyone who works for a public works or highway department knows, weather has a way of disrupting the best-laid plans. As concrete was being poured at the nearby demonstration project, the skies opened and heavy rain chased attendees back indoors.
The morning's agenda was changed, but the show went on. Larson knows this better than anyone. Largely because of his work at IRMCA, Indiana is the national leader in RCC projects. RCC has been poured in one-third of Indiana's 92 counties. For his tireless efforts in promoting RCC, TCP has selected Jerry Larson as a 2011 Industry Inflluencer.
Agriculture and asphalt
Larson, 51, was born and raised on a corn and soybean farm in Windfall, Ind., about 30 miles north of Indianapolis. So it was natural that he studied agriculture at Purdue University. But the early 1980s were difficult years for farmers. “There was not a lot of money to be made in farming at the time,” he recalls. So he also worked at a fertilizer dealership, resulting in “extremely long days.”
Larson then joined the Titpton County Highway Department in 1986, rose through the ranks, and became its director in 1992. As the head of the 32-person department, Larson was in charge of purchasing and the $3.2 million annual budget. He put together bid specs, dealt with the public, and “dabbled a little bit with concrete,” he says. “Asphalt was more in my background. That was the product of choice around the state. We dealt with it everyday.”
He returned to Purdue in 2001 to run the Indiana Local Technical Assistance Program, a federally assisted program that offers technical advice, support, and training to local highway officials. At the time, IRMCA sought to expand concrete's share in roads and streets. “I had those contacts,” he says. As IRMCA's new promotion manager, Larson's mission was to develop the marketplace and increase concrete's use in local road projects. Two years later, he became the association's executive director.
Due to oil price increases, the price of asphalt was spiking at this time. “It forced people managing these [highway] departments to look at other things,” he says. “Concrete became very cost-competitive.”
With a push from the American Concrete Pavement Association, IRMCA convinced the Indiana Department of Transportation to institute alternative bidding for its paving projects. Concrete won most of the 25 alternative bid projects. “We didn't have to institute life cycle costs,” Larson says. “We were just plain cheaper than asphalt up front.”
With asphalt costs rising rapidly, St. Joseph County (Ind.) planned to take 4 inches of asphalt off a road and replace it with more asphalt. Larson convinced the county engineer to competitive-bid the project with concrete. “They bid it and we were a couple thousand dollars more,” he says. “The engineer said this was a no-brainer. Life cycle costs and low maintenance would more than make up the difference.”
The next year, St. Joseph County performed a similar project by removing 4 inches of asphalt off the top and replacing it with 5 inches of RRC. “There was a huge cost savings to the county, and that sparked the interest of everybody around.”
RCC snowballed from there. Larson spoke about it at conferences and made presentations across the state. Interest also started to increase in using RCC for commercial projects, such as container yards and warehouses. Contractors followed. “They don't make their own asphalt; they buy it from someone else,” Larson says. “They really don't care whose product they put through their paver, as long as they make money at it.”
IRMCA's own producer-members were hesitant early on. “I had a hard time convincing them this was a viable product,” he says. “It doesn't look like conventional concrete, so some of the first projects looked like failures. I said. ‘This is pavement. Let's not think of this as conventional concrete or finished product we're used to seeing.' Some guys insisted they wanted to deliver it in their ready-mix trucks. I said, ‘At three or four miles per gallon, why do you want to haul it?'” In addition, a ready-mix truck can not discharge the material into a paver as fast as a dump truck.
Today, RCC projects in Indiana range from a couple hundred feet long by 20 feet wide on county roads to a 20-acre, new-car parking lot at a new Honda plant in Greensburg. “I get calls everyday from people who want to hear about it,” Larson says.