In 2017, on five acres in Kirksville’s industrial park, the city erected its asphalt mixing plant. It cost $1.3 million, which was significantly less than the cost of contracting out the entire job.
When his street supervisor first broached the idea that the city build its own asphalt mixing plant, Kirksville (Mo.) Public Works Director Glenn Balliew was skeptical. “You'll have to show me that,” he said in the best Show-Me State tradition.
Two years later, the plant is operational, turning out a premium quality paving material, and Kirksville finds itself in a leadership position among rural cities that are investing in themselves to maintain their infrastructure.
The city's decision to become more self-sufficient in its street repair capability was rooted in both economic and practical considerations, Balliew said. Getting asphalt paving material when the city wanted it was one problem. Paying too much for less-than-satisfactory pavement was the other. A city-owned asphalt mixing plant addressed both concerns and, in operation, has proven to be a cost-effective solution.
More Traffic, More Pressure
Kirksville is a northeast Missouri community of nearly 20,000 people. It is enjoying a spurt of economic growth. A Kraft Heinz food plant is completing a $250 million expansion and chain stores like Menards and Hobby Lobby are opening. In other words, more traffic is coming and more pressure on the city's street system.
The city is situated in farm country more than a hundred miles from any major metropolitan area in the state, unless you count Mark Twain's river town of Hannibal (96 miles).
An old asphalt batch plant is located in Kirksville, but seldom operates. In fact, when the company that owns it has a local job, it brings in a portable plant. This relative isolation from asphalt mixing facilities was a big factor in Kirksville deciding to become an asphalt producer.
“We did everything we could to keep from buying a plant,” Balliew said.
Making the Asphalt Plant Decision
The decision point came when the city had a street torn up, inconveniencing a neighborhood, and the local asphalt supplier that said it would deliver paving material, didn't. That was the moment the public works director and his street supervisor, Ray Sandstrom, began to seriously crunch numbers and explore the idea of building a plant.
“We studied where we get our paving material,” Balliew said. “We went to a World of Asphalt conference. It was something you couldn't talk to a lot of people about because not a lot of cities have their own plant. We really did an in-depth study to see if building one really was what we wanted to do. Eventually we put it in our budget for the next year and, step by step, justified it.”
Kirksville has 105 miles of paved streets for which it, rather than the state, is responsible. Generally speaking, the streets were in deplorable condition. An inspection using a Pavement Condition Index developed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers put a number to the condition of Kirksville's streets. They scored a 58 on a scale a 0-100, with 100 being excellent.
“The streets were bad,” Balliew said, the tests confirming what everyone knew to be the case.
The city had not significantly increased the street budget in nearly 30 years. As part of an economic development push, however, taxpayers have approved an additional $600,000 for street work beginning in 2019. Unfortunately, that still is not enough to offset the years of underfunding.
“So, we started looking at efficiency,” Balliew said.
First, city leaders allowed him to restructure his Public Works workforce and add a construction crew entirely separate from maintenance employees. His street supervisor, Sandstrom, oversees the construction work. “He is very capable.”
Other in-house initiatives included purchase of a slipform curb machine, which reduced the cost of curb work to $7.50 a linear foot from $28 a foot. A Wirtgen asphalt milling machine is periodically leased to prepare streets for new pavement, leasing being the most cost-effective option, Balliew said.
The city owns a relatively small LeeBoy asphalt paver for minor repairs and Balliew has budgeted to purchase a larger, more capable machine. The city acquired a tractor-trailer truck to haul limestone from a quarry in Ralls County.
Finally, city council authorized purchase of GPS surveying equipment for the street division. This allows the street supervisor and foremen to shoot multiple points, load them into a computer, and determine grade, drainage, and street design in-house.
“That has really paid dividends for us,” Balliew said.
Partnering With the University of Missouri
Perhaps the most significant decision was to partner with the civil and environmental engineering department of the University of Missouri. The campus is located in Columbia, 92 miles south on U.S. 63. Dr. Bill Buttlar holds the department's Glen Barton Chair of Flexible Pavement Technology. Sandstrom had met Buttlar at a conference and Buttlar found their idea interesting.
“I thought it was really intriguing that a small city would actually be the owner of an asphalt plant, that was a new concept to me,” Buttlar said.
Larger cities own such facilities — Chicago, Denver, St. Paul, for example.
“To have a rural, small city own a plant was new in the Midwest. The idea had a lot of merit. I applauded them for taking the initiative.”
Buttlar and university colleagues did more than cheer on Kirksville. The university's Missouri Asphalt Pavement and Innovation Lab undertook the testing to find an optimum asphalt mix for Kirksville streets. As Buttlar explains, “It was one thing to have a plant to mix the asphalt and aggregate and sand and another thing to do that according to scientific testing and to create a certified design. Instead of investing in a laboratory, they decided to partner with the university.”
The partnership has been mutually gratifying. Lab testing determined that a local rock quarry was not suitable for creation of top-quality asphalt paving material.
“The rock we evaluated would not get Kirksville to the Superpave levels they wanted,” Buttlar said. “The crushed shape of the rock was wrong. The quarry's stockpiled rock was dusty, way above what was needed in recommended rock. The strength of the rock wasn't there. Things were not in balance.”
So, an alternative source of rock was found. Though the cost of it was slightly higher, performance is much, much better, Buttlar said. He noted that Balliew's increased efficiencies “had given the city a little headroom to invest in a better rock source and in the university's design work.” Intense testing in the university lab resulted in a superior mix formula almost equivalent to “an interstate mix design, or for downtown Kansas City.”
Building the Asphalt Plant
In 2017, on five acres in Kirksville's industrial park, the city erected its asphalt mixing plant. It cost $1.3 million, which was significantly less than the cost of contracting out the entire job.
The Public Works construction crew built all the footers for the steelwork, collaborated on crane work, and was the main labor force on the job site.
The heart of the plant is an Asphalt Drum Mixers unit, purpose-built by the Huntertown, Ind., manufacturer in cooperation with the city.
It can produce up to 110 tons an hour of asphalt paving material, though it usually is not running at full blast. Two kinds of asphalt pavement are produced — a coarser base mix and a more refined composition for a street's top course.
“We didn't buy more plant than we needed,” Balliew said of the plant's capacity.
He noted that city crews could not do a major highway project with it, but that was never the intention. Kirksville continues to bid out major reconstruction projects.
“We still will have to have contractors' help. We get contractor bids for major projects we undertake and are going to raise our street budget next year. We'll use some of those dollars for contractors. We have major roads in town that are wide and long and you'll need traffic control for those. We don't have the manpower.”
The plant has the capacity to meet the needs of small projects in neighboring communities, which is a whole other dimension of activity for the plant: asphalt for sale.
“We didn't rule out selling asphalt paving material eventually,” Balliew acknowledged. “In fact, we've received numerous calls about buying asphalt from us. The problem is, it takes three people to run the plant and I hate to pull them out of the maintenance and construction crews. When we are already running the plant for a project of our own, it will be easier to do. But if we start selling to municipalities, we'll need to do invoicing and all of that.”
Success sometimes brings its own set of challenges.
The numbers toted up to justify the city building and operating an asphalt plant are holding up in actual practice, beginning with a 40 percent reduction in material cost. The projection that the plant would pay for itself in less than five years also is looking good.
An example of cost-savings is the current reconstruction of Illinois Street, which Balliew called the “gateway” into Kirksville. It is a half mile long and 36 feet wide.
“Engineering estimates for building the road were more than $2 million,” he said. “We are building it for less than $800,000.”
The street originally was concrete. Total reconstruction of it involves digging out the entire street and curb and bringing it all back up to grade to tie into the intersecting streets. New curbs were formed. Eight inches of rock will be laid as a base for eight more inches of asphalt paving. The city expects to complete the project by the end of the month.
“We have learned so much,” Balliew said. “The capability of my guys is just amazing. At one point on Illinois Street, we produced several hundred feet of curb with less than .5 percent of rise and fall. You only have one chance to get a result like that.”
With the plant earning its keep a little more each month, resistance to the idea of the city getting into the asphalt paving business has mostly evaporated. When the proposal first was announced, a few contractors quietly lobbied Missouri DOT officials and city officials to nix it. Not all community taxpayers were thrilled with the plan.
“There were some citizens who were opposed to it, and it's understandable,” Balliew said “They see their street falling apart and say, 'Why don't you fix my street instead of building a plant?' But I'd talk to them, show them where we were, explain the short, medium and long-range plan, show them the whole strategy, and they usually came around.”
Following Kirkville's Lead?
Will other small, rural cities follow Kirksville's lead? Professor Buttlar believes local circumstances will determine that.
“I think each city will have to do its own cost analysis,” he said. “You have to look at the cost of installing the plant and running it, and the experience of your staff. Can you make a major investment and look out over a sufficient number of years to see how you can pay off the plant? To do all that, you have to have a pretty bold and positive leader, like Kirksville has in Glenn.”
Buttlar added that his University of Missouri engineering department is prepared to help any city that wants to take the step. The department's asphalt and innovation lab, which he oversees, has the financial backing of government and industry, so its constituency is broad.
“We're also starting a website so communities across the U.S. and around the world can interface with our lab to see if there are opportunities for partnerships.”
Leaders from other municipalities already have been in touch with Kirksville City Hall. One Missouri city has adopted Kirksville's “exact specs” for a plant and is in the process of building one, Balliew says. Other leaders from Missouri and Illinois communities are in conversation about asphalt with their Kirksville peers.
Balliew is dismissive of the notion that his department's initiative was ground-breaking.
“People tell me things we are doing are so innovative,” he said. “Since when did doing your own work become innovative? Are we so far down the road that we can't do our own work? You can increase a budget, but you'll still need some help and everyone is so used to contracting out everything. We had to find some efficiencies to get more work done and going inhouse was the way to do it.”
Even then, Kirksville only got into asphalt because it had no other option.
“Business plans in regional asphalt plants basically say, if we don't lay it, we don't sell it. So, we just did what we had to do.”