Thursday, February 28, 2013


Throwing a shovelful of asphalt in a hole is lousy street maintenance

by Larry Geller

[this is inspired by Cynthia Oi’s column in today’s paper]

I’ve suggested that the Hawaii state government might consider hiring a Chief Technologist to be sure that our taxpayer money is not being spent in obsolete ways. Perhaps the CTO could lend a hand to the city of Honolulu as well. Clearly, there’s a thing or two or three we don’t know about road maintenance. But Honolulu also has problems related to execution. Even if we knew how to maintain our roads, could we do it?

In this article we’ll look at Honolulu streets and compare them with other places on the planet, but I’ll also add one more technology that we haven’t even dreamed of to my pet list.

The new technology (it would be new to Honolulu) is highway noise barriers in residential areas. I’ll take this up at the bottom of the article, you can skip ahead if you like.

Let’s dig in.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result

CaldwellFrankly, I found watching Mayor Caldwell throwing asphalt into a pothole to be very discouraging.

In a short time, that asphalt could pop out again leaving the same pothole exposed. And on Gulick Avenue? Where has the city been on maintaining Gulick Avenue? Nowhere, and the press coverage illustrates Honolulu’s ongoing failure to maintain its streets. Hint: having mayors fill potholes is not very useful.

Since other cities manage to keep their roads in good shape despite sun, rain and even more pedestrian and car traffic than we have, there must be something we’re not doing right.

How might we learn the best practices in all areas of municipal technology?

When I worded at GE Information Services, a Chief Technologist made sure GE was using the latest technology. Why not have a similar position here in Hawaii? Not only do we need to know we are using the best, most cost efficient technology in all areas of government (not just to improve our medieval computer systems, but also for roads, city planning, and more)—but to alert us to what others are doing that we should do also.

Yes, our streets and highways (both city and state roads) are in a sorry and shameful state of repair, but no, continuing to throw shovelfuls of asphalt at the problem, as the Mayor is doing, is not the answer.

Liliha intersectionMany cities have streets in good condition (see below for some pics). Honolulu has had potholes big enough to be seen from space, and some intersections which have not been painted as long as I’ve been snapping pictures of them—which is several years. Here’s a crosswalk near the Liliha Library snapped earlier this month. It doesn’t look as though it’s been painted since I first snapped it in 2010 (from the other side of the street). Or, if it has, the paint sure disappeared quickly!

Now Mayor Caldwell wants to invest in street repairs. We are not going to get quality streets until we change our ways. Let me back off from that foolish sentence. We are not going to get adequate streets unless the city changes its ways. Let me throw in sidewalk repairs. I’ve been treading the same broken sidewalk near where we now live for seven years now.

Honolulu needs to make a commitment to pay for maintenance

Maintenance is not Honolulu’s long suit, whether it’s roads or pipes, or the ugly posts and crumbling bridge in Chinatown. So unless money is regularly provided in yearly budgets to maintain the streets, they will fall into disrepair again. How much is needed? Without a step back to do the research and planning, we’ll simply get another layer of poorly done roads that won’t work any better for us.

Before budgeting for maintenance we need to be using the most appropriate, most durable technology to pave the streets in the first place.

Look at the results from the technology we’re now using. The asphalt doesn’t stick, and paint, when it is applied, disappears and is not promptly renewed. Reflectors installed on the highways don’t last and are not replaced. Road repairs (such as on the H-1 near Diamond Head Road in both directions) left a hazardous surface behind and it just stays that way (see here and here). Some areas of the streets and highways are so poorly marked that drivers can be confused about lane markings in the rain or at night.

I’ve lived in places with more traffic and similar rainfall, and the streets were in perfect condition. It can be done. If the city doesn’t know how to do it, step one might be to find out.

Can Honolulu fix the roads even if they knew how?

Finally, let’s talk about execution. Cynthia Oi points out in her column today, Caldwell’s political theater won’t smooth out our roads (Star-Advertiser p. A11, 2/28/2013) that [according to City Council member Ann Kobayashi]:

… road work is slow going because a contractor awarded multiple repair jobs did not have enough workers to do the jobs.

[Unrelated to roadwork but very related to poor execution—today’s front-page headline EPA sues city over dump's gas output. Check out the huge potential daily fines due to the city’s apparent screwup:

The EPA is asking the court to order the defendants to comply with federal clean-air laws and regulations and to impose civil penalties until they do. Maximum penalties are $27,500 per day for each violation that occurred on or before March 15, 2004, $32,500 per day for each violation through January 2009, and $37,500 per day for each violation after that.


The lawsuit says the city and Waste Management failed to submit a design or control plan for a gas collection and control system to the EPA by April 14, 2001, as required by federal regulations, failed to award contracts for construction or installation of such a system by Sept. 6, 2001, failed to start construction by Jan. 18, 2002, and failed to install and operate such a system by July 6, 2002.

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.]

Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the news coverage to indicate that the road situation will improve. It will take citizen action to change the way the city maintains our streets, and so far that has not materialized.

Checking out the paint elsewhere on the planet

Ok, let’s get aboard Google Earth and take a tour. Clicking on these pictures will produce a larger version.

Versailles FranceI started with Versailles because I like watching how Google Earth lands there. The Palace, of course, is beautiful. It’s a tourist destination. So is Honolulu. So how well do they maintain their roads? Quite well. Click on the pic for a larger image. Great street markings, truly merveilleux.

Asheville NCNext stop: Asheville, NC. Nanette recently visited there and reported that it was a nice place to live. So I thought I’d check it out. Nice places to live ought to have good street maintenance, right? They do. Click the pic to see for yourself.

Memphis TNFor no particular reason than I was just listening to some music from Memphis, TN, let’s go there. Yup, they have paint and good looking roads also.


Shibuya Tokyo JapanNo inspection tour would be complete without checking out Tokyo. They have lots of paint, always in perfect condition.


Shibuya Tokyo Japan 2This picture, also plagued with unfortunate shadows, nevertheless shows a mob of people waiting to cross a well-painted street in Tokyo. The dark spots are not potholes, they’re people! This particular intersection probably gets more foot and car traffic than anything we have in Honolulu, yet the street is in perfect condition.

Chuo-ku Tokyo Japan

One last pic, this one from Chuo Ward, Tokyo. Again splendidly fine paint.


Are there cities where the streets look like ours? Sure, both in the US and elsewhere. It’s easy to go slumming with Google Earth. Jakarta, Mumbai, Dacca have no paint at all. But even economically depressed cities like Flint, Michigan, have streets and paint that look better than ours. Pick your own destination and see how the streets compare.

Highway noise barriers – a technology undiscovered here

At the January meeting of our condo board, an owner raised the issue of increased highway noise as a result of the addition of another lane to the H‑1 right behind us. There is also a concrete retaining wall across the highway angled so that it reflects noise right at us. Great highway design.

Of course, the state will go ahead with its widening plan, and the noise level will probably increase a bit.

Here’s what Hong Kong has done with one section of noisy highway that runs next to a residential complex:

Hong Kong noise barrier

Elsewhere, it seems, citizens have stood up for their quality of life.

In Tokyo, protests from citizens groups led to noise barriers on the Shuto expressway as it passed by residential areas. I understand, but have not verified, that Tokyo also makes use of noise-reducing asphalt.

Searching for information about Tokyo is slow for me because it has to be done in Japanese, so I turned instead to Hong Kong, which also employs noise mitigation on its roads and highways.

HK Noise barrier pamphlet

Here’s a pamphlet dated 2003 with some information.


This link goes to a webpage also titled Guidelines On Design of Noise Barriers from Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department. The references include US and UK sources.


Finally, a press release from Hong Kong which includes this policy statement:

To mitigate the noise impact of existing roads on neighbouring residents, it is the Government's policy to consider the implementation of direct engineering solutions, where practicable, by way of retrofitting of barriers and enclosures, or resurfacing with low noise material on existing roads with a traffic noise level exceeding the limit of 70 dB(A). Since 2001, eight road sections have been retrofitted with barriers or enclosures, and 53 road sections have been resurfaced with low noise surfacing material.

Now there’s a government that’s responsive to its people. Low noise surfacing material? Has anyone in our city or state government even heard of that? I wonder.

If we want better streets and roads, including bike lanes and even, one day, noise abatement, we’re going to have to make some noise ourselves.


Thanks for posting this article. It makes me wonder if Hawaii is the only place where potholes and poor road maintenance is a permanent issue for every politician to use in their election campaign.

After decades of hearing from almost every candidate, "I will fix the roads, I will fix the sewers, I will fix the water pipes"

How about, "I will make sure that roads, sewers, water pipes do not become a fixture used in campaign promises"

Now is this also the same entity that will be running our rail system ? Better get ready to hear, "I will fix the broken rail - after I raise taxes to pay for the repairs."


I've heard frequently that there is just one asphalt plant on Oahu. I am told said plant is owned and operated by Grace Pacific which always is awarded the road repair jobs because it always has the best bid because it has the only asphalt plant on Oahu. Could this possibly be true? Do we really have a sole source asphalt supplier? That would certainly explain a lot of things.

I followed one of Mayor Caldwell's road repair trucks in Kailua this week. Man with shovel filling hole in road with asphalt, patting down, then moving to next one! Not going to last long!

I would say the temporary pothole fix comes down to manpower, the number of potholes to be filled and when the road is scheduled to be repaved. I have seen many noise barriers on mainland freeways, all are just very tall tile wall looking structures. Very unsightly.

If the roads were properly maintained, there would be fewer potholes. Often, a bad surface is merely skinned with a new, thin layer of asphalt. I have examples near where I live. Then part breaks away and there's a pothole. The skin shifts and moves, and lo, there's another pothole. Also cracks and missing pieces of pavement, and of course, much ugliness.

Sure, noise barriers may be ugly, but so are freeways. The use of noise abating pavement materials, though, doesn't make a visual difference. The point of my articles on this subject is to raise awareness. I don't think noise barriers in other locations would be put in unless people demanded them.


Good comment on ineffectiveness of pothole patches....what a waste. The fill moves and creates a bump, so now you have a bump before and/or after the hole, what a joke, like shackles on a prisoner so that they can't escape. But the City has invested a lot of resources developing an efficient complaints system.

Noise barriers for highways ? There are so many other noises out there that I can't see why or how highway noise is a priority - it's monotonous anyway, right ? Or maybe I'm missing something.

What about emergency vehicle sirens - I'm not talking about while you are in your car, I'm talking about when you are in your home.

And modified moped exhaust pipes.

And Harley's too - but sometimes you want to hear in a parade.

Kneeling alarms on city buses and that stupid city bus driver who must always beep his/her horn to the tune, "da-dada-da-da" every hour of every work day for over 6 years when passing his/her fellow driver...geez what an idiot....can he/she just wave ?

4am commercial rubbish truck -4am is okay, but isn't there another design that can be used instead of overhead dumping ?

And the 401am rattling of recycled bottles being pushed around in shopping carts.

Leaf blowers ? Is it really faster to use ?

Car alarms ? Anyone pay attention to these anymore ?

Boom boxes - seems to have gone down.


Yeah, well...

We used to live in Manoa for many years, up one of the hillsides. At night it was completely silent. In the morning we heard the birds, and only occasionally a wild pig snuffling outside. No ambulances, etc. The garbage truck did not arrive until later. The silence was golden.

Now we live near the H-1.

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