Of Water, Heat and Asphalt: An Essential Journey to Paving Robinson Road | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Of Water, Heat and Asphalt: An Essential Journey to Paving Robinson Road

A road construction crew works on historic Robinson Road in late May. Photo by Kayode Crown

A road construction crew works on historic Robinson Road in late May. Photo by Kayode Crown

Jordan Brown, a car seller, has a deep connection to Robinson Road. He started working with his father in his auto-services business on the thoroughfare that runs through west and south Jackson in 1999 when he bought the current building where his company operates.

“Robinson Road is the oldest road in Jackson, Mississippi, and has much historical value,” Brown told the Jackson Free Press. It reportedly linked the new capital city with Columbus in the early 19th century. “Moreover, if you do a traffic report, it is probably one of the busiest in the city.”

The 33-year-old was delighted that the road is getting the attention it needs after many years of neglect. The City of Jackson, in conjunction with Hinds County, recently started a three-phase repaving of the road. Phase one will repave Capitol Street to Ellis Avenue, and Ellis Avenue to Highway 80 is phase two. The third phase is Highway 80 to Interstate 20.

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Jordan Brown stands next to his father's auto services company along Robinson Road in Jackson. Photo by Kayode Crown

Brown said before the repaving, while Ellis Avenue to Highway 80 was “pretty decent,” Ellis Avenue to Capitol and Gallatin Streets was “terrible.” He added that “many people burst their tires on this road or hit the sidewalk or something like that.”

People come into his store, lamenting they had just burst their tires after driving into a big hole on the road, he said. Brown is confident the paving will make residents happy. “It makes the city more attractive for people to come visiting,” he said.

Brown, who helps people start businesses does not believe, though, that excitement over the newly repaved road will last, saying that the volume of rainfall in Jackson every year can quickly erode the asphalt.

Jackson experiences 54 inches of rainfall a year on average, which is 16 inches higher than the national average.

“We have to see how long the road is going to last. It rains here a lot, and when it rains, it erodes the gravel as well as the soil,” he said. “It erodes it, and it breaks apart easily. It rains a lot in the state of Mississippi. It rains here, and everything erodes here. The road may not last long. It does not matter if there are five inches of tar on the road; it will just go like that.

“My prediction is that it will not last more than the summer or fall. ... Every time it rains, it just makes the asphalt soft, and here when it rains, it makes the humidity high, and the asphalt gets soft, and it cracks. There will probably be a crack by the middle or end of summer.” He observed that the repaving is probably with one or two inches of asphalt on the road, which he posited as not being enough.

“It was a real thin layer, I noticed. Moreover, that was before bringing the steamroller. That is why I said that it is not going to last long, in my opinion.”

That Darned Yazoo Clay

Michael Arnemann, executive director of the Mississippi Asphalt Pavement Association, lends credence to Brown’s assertion, saying in an interview that potholes may be prevalent in Jackson because of the Yazoo clay under the road surfaces.

In 1988, the Mississippi Department of Natural Resources’ Bureau of Geology documented the qualities of the clay that make it a lousy substructure for construction. The report noted that the expansive nature of the soil is a primary cause of foundation and structural damage experienced in the Yazoo clay belt, especially in Jackson.

It can absorb large quantities of water during prolonged periods of rainfall or flooding. It expands when saturated and strains the structure placed on it, like road pavements. Yazoo clay is noted for being largely without impurities like sand, silt and organic material that can minimize that expansion. It swells and then shrinks considerably upon drying. This causes weakened areas that crack during dry periods and have the potential to compromise the superstructure. In the case of roads, it can break up pavements, leading to potholes.

Arnemann said rainfall can make the road deteriorate because of the Yazoo clay, based on its peculiar characteristics. He, however, fell short of embracing Brown’s notion that the repaved Robinson Road would go that way in the next few months. He noted that the contractor, Superior Asphalt is competent and qualified contractor who follows specifications of the local public agency in charge of the job. “They are doing it to the best of their ability,” he said.

“They go in and ground out 1.5 inches of existing pavement, and they put another 1.5 inches in its place,” Arnemann said of the contractor. There needs to be more probably; there probably needs to be two, maybe even three inches, but there is not enough money for that to happen. I cannot speak to how long it would last, but it should last for a long period of time.”

A Dearth of Funding

Arnemann, who worked in the Mississippi Department of Transportation for more than eight years before joining MSPA in 2018, fingered the dearth of funding for road construction over decades as the major problem for local streets. “The roads in Jackson for the last multiple decades are underfunded,” he said. “The overall solution is more money towards infrastructure, more dedicated money to the city. We have a funding problem.

“We are operating on a fixed funding mechanism, the gas tax, which has been in place since 1987.” The 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax funds MDOT. Unchanged since 1987, it is one of the lowest in the U.S.

“We are executing a 1987 business model in 2020, and that does not work for an industry like infrastructure. It not only doesn’t work for most industries but infrastructure, civil infrastructure have very heavy costs associated with it,” Arnemann said. “Asphalt is expensive, steel is expensive, concrete is expensive, these are major items that are not cheap, and they are not cheap because, given proper application, they last—they perform their function for a long time.”

“To do it right, you have to have the amount of money required to get the job done. And there is not enough money to keep up with the number of needs in Jackson and the state. It is a funding problem, nothing else,” he argued. “The people have to speak up as they did for the 1-percent sales tax. The people of Jackson overwhelmingly voted for that mechanism, when they knew it was for roads and infrastructure.”

Nine in 10 people of Jackson voted for the 1% sales tax increase in 2014.

Arnemann posited that if the people of Jackson knew there would be an additional level of tax on gasoline and motor fuel and the money dedicated to roads and bridges maintenance and construction, they would similarly support it. “But the people have to speak up and talk to their representatives and talk to their legislators, call their elected officials, city council members, mayors and say ‘we want our roads fixed.’

Like the Burbs in the 1950s

Jordan Brown, who said his family has sold cars on Robinson Road for 32 years, described it as an ancient area, which in the 1950s used to be like the suburbs. “(The) west Jackson part of the town would be considered a suburb, very exclusive, where it was kind of dangerous to be black on this road. That was the downside,” he said.

“This building we are in right now used to house Goodyear (Tires); it was one of the oldest buildings on this block, the 2600 block. And two doors from here was a bank. That was in the ‘50s.”

Along the road, the Jackson Free Press spoke with a motorist who gave his name as James Douglas. He acknowledged how good the repaving of the Robinson Road is, but could barely contain himself as he reeled off names of other deplorable streets in Jackson in urgent need of attention.

Many drivers regularly lament the bad state of the roads. It has become like a folklore in the city, and the source of many jokes about it. Douglas, as if sending a message to the City, said: “This is one street. You have many more in Jackson, Mississippi, still to be fixed.

“Go to Medgar Evers! Go to (Queen) Theresa! I think you are doing a pretty good job, but you need to speed things up. You need to be over there by my house, pave them roads, all of them need to be paved.”

Predictably, he has a sad personal tale of his own. “I hit a pothole the other day, last night and the other day. It messed my van up, and then messed my car up, so y’all need to do it some more,” he said.

The owner of a mechanic shop along the road who declined to give his name said the project is long overdue, saying that the last paving project on it was 10 years ago.

It Becomes a Safety Issue

The cost of the repaving project is reportedly $2,396,194. The Hinds County Board of Supervisors obtained a $950,000 grant from the Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the City of Jackson matched it with $1,085,058.82 from the 1% Sales Tax Commission.

The Jackson Free Press witnessed different construction crews on Robinson Road during the repavement. One asked this reporter, “Are you trying to see where your taxes are being used for?”

Nearby, a sign had fallen to the ground. It has the seal of the City of Jackson on it and reads: YOUR 1% AT WORK: THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTINUED SUPPORT.

The sales tax in Mississippi is 7 percent, but in 2014, Jackson voters approved a 1-percent hike. The 1% tax commission manages the disbursement of the money for various projects in the city.

Ward 5 Councilman Charles H. Tillman says he appreciates those involved in the Robinson Road project’s realization, including the mayor, the Hinds County Board of Supervisors and the commission.

During a phone interview, Tillman expressed delight at the speed of the project, saying it is nearing completion.

“I appreciate it, and my constituents truly appreciate it,” he said. “It will save some automobile expenses, no doubt about that. In the rain, the potholes get larger and larger. Lightweight cars enter the potholes, causing damage. It becomes a safety issue.”

Tillman echoed Brown and Arnemann about the challenge of soaked pavement. “Then you have the large trucks, Waste Management trucks, heavy-duty equipment and delivery trucks that come from time to time. That can cause the biggest damage,” the councilman said.

“But we need all those services.”

“From what I have been told,” Tillman added, “the subsurface is the primary thing and the second thing is good-quality asphalt, and the third thing is somebody that knows how to do the work.”

Costs of Bad Roads

Yadong Li, a professor at Jackson State University Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, agreed that the fast degradation of Jackson’s roads may be mostly about Yazoo clay. “If the subgrade of a road in a clayey soil region is not sufficiently stabilized either mechanically or chemically, with the intrusion of rainwater and heavy loads, the road will rapidly deform and deteriorate,” he said.

With the disclaimer that he is not a pavement engineer, Li noted that because of poor paving jobs, some roads have potholes, cracks or uneven road surfaces not long after they have been constructed or resurfaced, with some less than a year.

He also pointed to insufficient stormwater drainage system on the roads: “I observed that on John R. Lynch Street, small rains can cause ponding of water on the road surface. The number and size of the curb drains are simply not enough.”

A white paper on Mississippi infrastructure released last year gave a sad picture of the states of Mississippi roads, singling out Jackson’s significant congestion and road conditions leading to loss of time and money due to traffic delays, crashes, extra vehicle operating costs and other factors.

Mississippi State University’s Construction Materials Research Center and Mississippi State Board of Contractors co-authored the paper titled “Mississippi’s Transportation Infrastructure: Paving Everyone’s Road to Success.” It argues that pavement rehabilitation is needed before extreme deterioration to ensure relatively low-cost treatments, such as crack sealing and thin overlays which merely cost tens of thousands of dollars per lane mile.

“As maintenance activities are delayed, pavement condition continues to decline requiring more extensive repairs, such as removal and replacement, at a much higher cost (on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars per lane mile),” it states. “In total, Mississippi drivers lose approximately $2.9 billion annually due to roadway conditions and congestion-related issues. Improving roadway conditions could save Mississippi drivers up to $534 annually in vehicle operating costs over 10 years.”

The paper also noted that pavements in good condition can reduce fatality and injury-causing crashes by 26% when compared to deficient pavements.

‘Essential for Quality of Life’

Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba acknowledged paving challenges at his May 6 press conference announcing the repaving of Robinson Road.

“We’re excited about what we’ve done so far,” the mayor said, “but we’re far from satisfied. So, we are eagerly anticipating the work that is coming this summer. Just as we campaigned last year saying it’s paving season, you will see that going forward. As we tackled the roads that were mentioned, we look forward to Ellis Avenue being paved, we look forward to Capitol Street being paved, and we are truly looking forward to Medgar Evers being paved.”

In February, Lumumba announced the first repaving project of 2020, which encompasses the North State Street corridor between Fortification Street and Woodrow Wilson Avenue. He said the project is essential for citizens’ quality of life and the ongoing growth of the city.

“It is important that as we tackle our infrastructure that we turn our infrastructure into an economic frontier,” he said.

Lumumba pointed to plans for other road resurfacing work this year with two design projects underway for work on Medgar Evers Boulevard from Five Points to Martin Luther King Drive, and Capitol Street from Prentiss Street to Boling Street. Their designs are expected to be completed by summer.

Email city/county reporter Kayode Crown at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @kayodecrown.

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