City inspectors watch contractors to be sure road projects are done right 

Beating the streets

click to enlarge Cracks are showing on newly repaved Austin Bluffs Parkway. The city wants the contractor to fix it. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Cracks are showing on newly repaved Austin Bluffs Parkway. The city wants the contractor to fix it.

In August 2015, contractors finished widening Austin Bluffs Parkway, a $22.5 million project that spanned well over a year and was funded with the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority tax.

Less than a year later, on May 4, the city notified the chief contractor, citing "signs of potential failure" in pavement east of Union Boulevard, according to city correspondence.

A fix is in the works. That's because the city was watching for problems within the two-year warranty period. Taxpayers expect that kind of bird-dogging when they pour millions of dollars into road work, and city officials say they're making sure projects are done right.

Durability and accountability have come into the spotlight recently, because the city has embarked on a five-year, $250million road repair program funded with a special tax called 2C approved by voters last November.

Now, a few months into the program, city officials say they have a robust inspections program that holds contractors accountable and makes sure citizens get what they pay for.

"I want to assure the taxpayer that we're accepting exactly what we should be getting," says Corey Farkas, manager of the city's Public Works Operations and Maintenance Division, which oversees the city's 2C program.

Earlier this year, the city's two-year warranty came under fire. As the city prepared to launch the 2C program, Councilors Don Knight, Bill Murray and Helen Collins favored longer warranties, up to five years. But the business community pressured the city, and Mayor John Suthers chose to stay with two years.

"The city and the county have criteria that make it clear what constitutes a breach of the industry standard two-year warranty," Suthers wrote to Council members in February. "They are totally at a loss what constitutes a breach of a five-year warranty. That's a problem unless and until we create those criteria."

As Knight said in a Feb. 29 message to the Regional Business Alliance, which lobbied for a two-year guarantee, if voters start seeing cracks within a couple of years of work done in 2016, 2017 and 2018, they might not give the city a green light to renew the tax for another five years in 2020. City officials have said extending the program is necessary to catch up on decades of deferred maintenance.

"I believe it's a downright shame that the citizens of Colorado Springs are hoodwinked again," Collins told the Independent via email at that time.

She pointed to the Federal Highway Administration's guide that says typical warranties on preventive measures like chip sealing and thin overlays are two to four years. These are often called material and workmanship warranties. Performance warranties typically cover five to 20 years and apply to new, reconstructed or rehabilitated roads, the agency says.

With some of the Austin Bluffs corridor project and much of the 2C agenda, the work consists of repairs, not building brand new roads or reconstructing them.

Although Austin Bluffs was widened and repaved via PPRTA, a regional program, the same two-year warranty applies as for city road work.

Even before the project was finished, the parkway's surface showed signs of trouble, according to the May 4 city memo, which states: "Last year, as we were finishing the Austin Bluffs Corridor Project, there were issues identified with the pavement of the project. We provided you with documentation of the issues from the City Streets Division as well as our construction management team through the punch list process. The response from Lawrence Construction and your subcontractor, Rocky Mountain Asphalt, was that you believed the issues were minor in nature and were addressed properly by the time of project completion in August."

Signs of failure emerged eight months later, the memo notes.

"The road is still within the two-year warranty period and we are requesting you take immediate remedial action," the memo says.

Problems arise, city engineering manager Mike Chavez says, when a paving job requires an overlay rather than a complete reconstruction.

"What happens when you overlay pavement," he says, "is if there's cracks underneath, they'll show." It's called "reflective cracking," but the Austin Bluffs problem isn't reflective cracking, Chavez says. Rather, it appears to be caused by something else; hence, the city's demand.

"We've contacted the contractor and they are looking into it to see what they think is the cause and what a repair would entail," Chavez says. "We're waiting for the contractor to get back to us." No repair work has taken place on the roadway so far. Don Hanneman with Lawrence Construction of Littleton says he'll meet with city officials Sept. 12 to discuss the problems.

Chavez says after his crews inspect and approve completed road work, a certificate of completion is issued to acknowledge the work meets the city's approval. The project then is logged onto a calendar, which automatically notifies inspectors 30 days before the warranty expires, so they can examine whether the road has held up, he says.

Chavez estimates that issues arise about 10 percent of the time for road work, including concrete and asphalt.

Chavez reports that contractors are generally responsive when contacted. "Their reputation is at stake, so they have a vested interest to take care of things," he says. "People notice what company is doing the work."

Regarding 2C work, Farkas says his strategy is to prevent failures from happening in the first place by monitoring work in progress. "That's where we have found success in our program in not having warranty calls," he says, "making sure they do it right the first time."

That involves quality control of materials and workmanship "that ensures the product being put down is per specifications, and we're getting what we paid for," he says.

Four city inspectors and others hired through engineering consultants for the 2C program watch contractors throughout a project.

"In our process, we test the application of the material, and the material itself," he says. "We test oil at the plant, before they even mix it. We'll test it after it's been mixed, and after it's put on the ground for density. We also have an inspector while the material is put down, so that our specifications are followed, that the temperature is correct, everything."

Farkas says the city's streets have experienced deterioration over the years because they haven't been maintained properly, and that's not a warranty problem.

Good maintenance, he says, makes roads last longer. "We expect to see cracks within the same year you paved it, and that's perfectly normal," he says. "You want to be able to be proactive with crack sealing, slurry sealing and chip sealing. That will keep that road in good shape for years to come."

But the city has failed to carry out an aggressive maintenance program, and roads have fallen apart because of that neglect, he says.

As for longer warranties, the city is not developing criteria for a five-year warranty. Farkas says it's possible that guarantees of five or 10 years could be required for reconstructions and new construction, but the expectations need to be clear.

No contractors applying an overlay want to be responsible for failure of a subgrade they didn't install. "When you have a roofer put a new roof on, you'd expect the roofer to warranty the roof, but not the whole house," he says.

Some roads show severe problems, but it's not the fault of the contractor who laid the most recent asphalt overlay.

Streets in the eastern corridor around Powers Boulevard, built in the 1990s and early 2000s, have wide lateral cracks that resulted from rigid subgrades topped with pavement that became brittle and then cracked, Farkas says. Then the crevices grow wider over time.

The city has been experimenting with various repairs, but Farkas admits, "There is no fix, and this is nationwide. There's nobody that's figured this out. There are cracks out east I can put my fist into 8 inches deep. Every fix we've done thus far, the pavement keeps moving."

The city has since changed specifications for road bases to require certain types of aggregate to enhance compaction and prevent such cracks. Its new-road warranty period remains two years, however.

Asked if 2C overlays will need work in two years, he says, "Absolutely. That's the preventive maintenance part. The roads we're paving today in two years will need to be crack sealed, and years after that, they'll need to be chip sealed. You'll continue that preventive maintenance, so you'll pay $1 instead of waiting 20 years and finding ourselves in need of a $10 fix."

Two-year warranties, Farkas says, for maintenance work are standard, and since he joined the city's street maintenance team in 2013, the city has never called back a contractor on a warranty for maintenance.

"We had two streets from last year," he recounts. "During paving operations, we saw deficiencies during the work, documented it, informed the contractor it wasn't done correctly. Before the end of the season, they circled back, remilled the street and repaved it on their dime."

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