Making concrete plans

Out of the 720 km of expressways and motorways to be built in Poland involved in tenders now being organised by the General Directorate of National Roads and Motorways [GDDKiA], as many as 40 pct (280 km) are to be concreted, in a shift away from the more usual asphalt

According to the entire National Road Construction Programme (for 2014–2023), 809 roads are to be constructed primarily using concrete. This means that you should be driving over concrete (including on already completed sections) most of the way from Warsaw to Lithuania (between Wyszków and the border crossing in Budzisk along the S8 and S61 roads) as well as from Warsaw to Katowice along the S8 and the A1 roads. In October 2016, minister Andrzej Adamczyk took the decision for almost 100 km of the A1 motorway, between Tuszyn and Częstochowa, to be constructed with concrete surfaces. The task is even greater because the majority of the road (the section between Piotrków Trybunalski and Częstochowa) will have three lanes instead of two in each direction. “For such a busy section as Tuszyn–Częstochowa, the advantages of concrete surfaces are particularly important, due to their durability and resistance to pothole formation. I am very glad that despite the change in government, the programme that was adopted two years ago, which included sections that are to be built using concrete technology, is now being implemented,” says a very satisfied Jan Deja, the head of the department of construction material technology at the AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków and director of the office of the Cement Producers Association.

Is it profitable?

The press first reported the GDDKiA’s plans for increasing the amount of concrete surfaces in its programme of expressway and motorway construction in 2014, provoking a strong reaction from the asphalt industry. In a joint letter to the GDDKiA in November 2014, the National Chamber of Commerce for Road Construction and Maintenance and the Polish Association of Asphalt Surface Contractors expressed their alarm that a nearly fivefold increase in the amount of concreting compared to the programme for 2007–2013 had not been previously discussed with the construction industry. Contractors pointed out that the sector was still weak due to the generally low margins. The GDDKiA’s decision could, according to the industry, deepen such problems because firms have purchased equipment for the construction of asphalt roads with a view to finishing the government’s road building programme. “Any investment in new concrete processing machines and devices is simply impossible,” they concluded in the letter.

Soon the focus of the main criticism had shifted to the economic sense of the published plans. The GDDKiA’s projection that it could achieve future savings of PLN 670 mln from the switch to concrete roads was also questioned. Furthermore, the asphalt industry had come to precisely the opposite conclusion. “If the sections planned to be built using concrete technology (a total of 809 km) were instead built with asphalt surfaces, savings of over PLN 1.264 bln could be generated,” claims an analysis submitted at a session of the parliamentary infrastructure committee in mid-2015. According to the calculations of the Polish Association of Asphalt Surface Contractors, the cost for the construction of 1 km of expressway and its maintenance for 30 years comes to PLN 10.9 mln for asphalt and over PLN 12.4 mln for concrete surfacing. This calculation was immediately criticised by the Association of Concrete Producers, who characterised the report as “unreliable, biased, containing numerous errors and false statements”. There was controversy once again in April 2016, when the concrete industry published its own calculations (prepared under the supervision of Antoni Szydło of the Wrocław University of Technology), according to which concrete expressways are around a third cheaper at the construction stage and the savings increase to 54.5–57 pct after 30 years of operation.

GDDKiA spokesman Jan Krynicki has declined to comment on the analyses of both industries. “According to the contracts signed by us over the last few years, the prices of both at the construction stage are similar. We also have offers from companies involved in road maintenance and we can see that annual maintenance does not cost us any more with either of these approaches,” he says. However, according to the general directorate, concrete surfacing only requires major renovations every 30 years or more, even in the case of very busy roads. “The issue is all about avoiding the necessity of major renovations every 10–15 years,” he adds.

Strong or not?

This, however, is also a contentious issue, because in Germany some concrete motorways have started to crack over the last few years. “Alkali-silica reactivity (ASR), commonly known as “concrete cancer’, is something that can afflict concrete. Elements of the cement and aggregate react; a gel is then created that increases its volume and causes the concrete to crumble. In Germany more than 300 km of motorways now need to be dug up because of this blight. It is also an issue in the Czech Republic,” says Zbigniew Krupa, a proxy representative of the Polish Association of Asphalt Surface Contractors. The greatest damage can be seen on sections of the A14 and A9 in Saxony-Anhalt. And this happens to roads that are less than a dozen years old. “This is a clear error in the selection of aggregate. If someone uses aggregate of an inferior quality to make concrete, they have to be prepared for these kinds of results,” explains Jan Deja. He also says that rigorous requirements concerning the aggregates used to make concrete surfaces have been stipulated by the GDDKiA. “In Poland there have been no such problems for twenty years because the aggregates that have been used fulfil the quality criteria,” insists Jan Deja. He also claims that the key is ensuring the quality, for contractors using either of the two systems. “The technologies should compete with each other. In fact asphalt-based systems are much more advanced these days and are incomparably better than 15 or 20 years ago. Why are the contractors who use these bitumen surfaces now claiming that they can last 50 years? This is also a response to what concrete technology offers, so we should be pleased about this,” says Jan Deja. However, he emphasises that antagonism between the two different camps of road-builders is not desirable. “There is enough space for both technologies,” he emphasises.

Against mono-culture

The GDDKiA’s spokesman points out that cement surfaces, which form a stiff layer and are therefore susceptible to breaking under certain conditions, do have some limitations, which is why asphalt still accounts for a large percentage of surfaces in the road construction programme. “Concrete is not used in areas where the geology is uncertain. It is also avoided on bridges, because a certain flexibility is needed for such structures. In addition to this, for roads where the main stretch has a concrete surface, the volumes are split fifty-fifty between bitumen and concrete because all the support roads, bridge facilities and interchanges are built using asphalt,” points out Jan Krynicki.

Under the current construction programme, concrete is being used where the heavy vehicle traffic exceeds 5,000 vehicles per day and where the conditions permit this. “The criteria for surface selection are clear. There is no room for discretion,” insists Jan Krynicki. He adds, however, that the GDDKiA has these guidelines under constant review and is seeking out innovative approaches, such as, for example, the long-lasting asphalt road surfacing used on the S8 exit road from Warsaw towards Kraków and Katowice.

Concrete supporters also point to the relatively low percentage of concrete roads in the Polish transport network. In Germany, Austria and the UK almost half of all motorways have concrete surfaces, whereas in Poland the figure comes to less than a third. Out of a total of 3,163.4 km of all expressways and motorways in Poland, 492.6 km are concrete (15.5 pct). “When we have completed our current plans, the proportion of concrete roads will still amount to around 20 pct or so, with asphalt roads constituting over 70 pct. Apart from the new motorways that are to be built, existing roads will also require regular repairs. The asphalt industry will certainly not be short of work,” insists Jan Krynicki.