Concrete: King of the Valley’s Roads
Concrete denotes something solid, with great strength, and permanence. Perhaps that’s why there was such a clamor way-back in 1919 when the Maricopa County Highway Commission decided to eliminate concrete construction from its $4 million road program.
Voters approved the county's 278-mile highway program through a bond issue on May 17, 1919. But the rising price of concrete and freight costs made it impossible to construct roads with this material. From random telephone calls, The Arizona Republican reported that county taxpayers favored concrete.
“We want no shoddy in our road,” J.G. Hammels said. “I am sure every man I know wants permanent concrete highways—roads that will last more than a year or so.”
Likewise, Stanley Howard opined that “If we did not have more than a mile of road, we should have a good one; a good road or none at all.”
The Highway Commission tried to address the high cost of constructing concrete roads by exploring the possibility of manufacturing cement themselves. When they discovered that they didn’t have the legal authority to do so, they made an effort to seek assistance from the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association (SRVWUA), known today as SRP. SRVWUA primarily consisted of farmers who would benefit from the improved roads to get their food to market. SRVWUA’s articles of incorporation only allowed them to buy land and manufacture cement for their use. The Highway Commission even urged SRVWUA to hold a special election to amend their articles to sell the cement.
Thankfully, on December 31, 1920, voters approved another bond election for $4.5 million, making $8.5 million available for good roads. The December 24, 1921 issue of Arizona Highways noted the Highway Commission's program as the "most ambitious county paving undertaking in the United States and has attracted no end of interest among highway engineers the Country over."
Now fast forward about 40 years when Phoenix was booming, and the city had problems keeping up with building and maintaining its infrastructure. Phoenix streets were quickly deteriorating, and it was known as the “Pothole Capital of the U.S.” There was a tremendous need for inexpensive, rapid repairs. Some innovative government employees helped keep motorists traveling the city’s roads, many of which were concrete with an asphalt overlay.
The city was fortunate to have employee Charlie McDonald, whom the Rubber Pavements Association termed the "Father of Rubberized Asphalt." Starting in 1959, he and Joe Cano worked at the city's Materials Testing Lab to determine a better street repair system than the conventional chip seal used to repair streets. Chip seal eventually cracks and leads to water infiltrating the paved surface.
Charlie and Joe experimented with different materials, trying to extend the life of pavement and save taxpayers’ money. They tried several iterations of mixes with hot asphalt and ground recycled tires until they found the right blend. The city continued to gradually increase the use of rubberized asphalt instead of chip seal. The city banned chip sealing in March 1989 due to decades of overwhelming complaints about loose rocks cracking people's windshields.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jul/Aug 2021 issue, Vol. 10, No. 4.