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The Road To Hell Is Unpaved, Due To High Oil Prices

Oil prices had a "whoa, Nelly!" sort of day, and no one's sure why. One less-noticed consequence of oil's quick climb, though, is that the nation's roads are getting worse and worse, as the soaring price of asphalt forces local governments to put off their repaving projects:

The mix used to resurface roads consists of gravel and sand held together with a binder called liquid asphalt, which is made from crude oil. As oil prices rise, so does the cost of asphalt, says Don Wessel of Poten & Partners, a consulting firm that publishes Asphalt Weekly Monitor. "Prices are the highest I've seen in many, many, many years," he says. "The concern is that they will go up considerably."

Increases in the cost of diesel fuel used to transport, heat and lay asphalt are adding to the sticker shock, too, creating headaches across the USA:

A few paved roads in Hall County, Neb., will revert to gravel surfaces, says public works director Casey Sherlock. "At some point, they'll be potholed so bad we won't be able to keep patching them." He had hoped to resurface 6-7 miles of road this spring and could afford only 2 miles.

Not to mention that many roads in the country are already in shoddy condition. On the upside, though, Wired recently reported on some promising efforts by a $5-million research program called the Asphalt Research Consortium that was trying to develop a "cold-mix" asphalt that uses less energy to create. ("One method involves shearing asphalt into fine particles, then mixing them with water and soap-like chemicals called surfactants that hold the asphalt in solution until its laid.") Cheaper asphalt hasn't exactly been high on the list of anyone's priorities in the past, but judging by the large number of news items about the cripplingly high cost of paving roads, that's changing, and fast.

In the meantime, though, state governments—and Congress, too—will likely have to pony up even more money for roads (potholes have never been terribly popular with voters). And that means less cash in the kitty for public transit, say, or other long-term alternatives. Oil addiction really is the gift that keeps on giving...

--Bradford Plumer