An expensive road striping tape with a four-year guarantee is coming up in hunks a few months after crews rolled it onto several Salt Lake County roads.
Large pieces of crosswalks and lettering have been torn away by snowplows and traffic on Foothill Boulevard, 1300 East, 4500 South, 5400 South and 300 West. The tape is even coming up around the State Capitol, where lawmakers and those in the governor's office can see what has cost taxpayers $1.5 million during the past three years.Although the Utah Department of Transportation can't fix the failing tape until late spring or summer, it has been scrambling for more than a month to find out what went wrong and prevent it from happening again.
"We have a committee formed to look at where we should go," said UDOT maintenance engineer Gerald O. Barrett.
But interviews with local contractors, UDOT and the tape's manufacturer, 3M Corp., indicate similar failures have occurred in the past. UDOT didn't form any committees then, however, to follow up and avoid repeated problems.
Barrett said he hasn't had the resources until now to do an extensive testing of the product. "There has been some evaluation but not a concerted effort," he said.
Despite little or no follow-up on failed tape installations, UDOT has annually increased the use of the heavy plastic tape on its maintenance and construction projects along the Wasatch Front. Estimates from 3M Corp. and UDOT show tape purchases from 3M in 1988 totaling $288,000; in 1989, $453,000; and in 1990, $760,000.
The last and largest purchase included tape that UDOT had never used before.
"If UDOT thinks it is testing this stuff, it's a big test," said one private contractor, comparing the failing road marking tape to UDOT's infamous Syn-crete project.
UDOT's large-scale application of a faulty concrete overlay on I-15 - done without undergoing normal product testing procedures - is somewhat reminiscent of the taping project in that the state has required contractors to use more 3M road marking tape every year without adequately evaluating its performance, he said.
UDOT apparently hasn't kept track of the striping material's successes and failures. When asked to name some projects considered successful, department officials mention three: Van Winkle Expressway, where the tape has stuck for nine years; I-70 near Green River, where it has lasted four years; and it's surviving a third winter along U.S.-89 from North Salt Lake to Bountiful.
Meanwhile, a tour of I-15 and major routes along the Wasatch Front marked with tape reveal at least 10 large-scale failures in the past three years. (See accompanying chart.)
3M says tape's guaranteed
That's not saying 3M Corp. has cheated Utah. The company says it will guarantee the material.
"If you check, we have an excellent track record for standing behind our products," 3M spokesman Chris Welsh said. The company paid for labor and materials to replace tape peeling and flaking off 700 East two years ago.
He said company officials were in Salt Lake City last month to examine the latest round of failures. The tape used on the crosswalks was a new type, Welsh said, which obviously has some problems.
"One way or the other, we will stand behind the product. We will either replace it or refund the money," Welsh said, noting the most recent problems amount to an estimated $100,000 worth of tape.
Barrett acknowledges 3M Corp.'s guarantee is what makes the tape attractive.
"No other tape has a guarantee like that," Barrett said.
An alternative to paint
The Federal Highway Administration has urged UDOT to try various road marking materials for several years. Federal and state officials want to find alternatives to traditional paint, which doesn't last through the winter and forces painting crews to disrupt traffic twice a year.
But paint costs about 12 cents a foot for crosswalk markings, compared to tape, which cost $4.50 a foot to install on the now-shredded crosswalks along Foothill Boulevard. To make a standard 4-inch-wide lane line, paint costs about 5 cents a foot, while tape cost $1.70 per foot on Foothill, according to UDOT bid abstracts.
Other products being tested by UDOT that are more expensive than paint, but not as costly as tape, include thick liquid epoxy, methyl metharcrylate and thermoplastic.
Cost isn't the only consideration, however, when selecting a pavement marking. Barrett said durability is important because the longer the stripe lasts, the less time maintenance crews will spend out in traffic every year.
Ironically, the most recent failures of tape involve crosswalk striping, which disrupts traffic more and requires more labor than any other marking job.
A pavement marking's ability to remain bright or reflective over a long period of time is another factor UDOT engineers consider. And brightness is another selling point for tape, Barrett said. Along with durability, 3M says the guarantee includes a minimum level of "reflectivity" or visibility after four years.
Tests of the tape's reflectivity on I-70 near Green River, however, showed epoxy lines brighter than the 4-year-old tape, UDOT said.
Bad installation blamed for failure
Although 3M says its product did fail on the crosswalks, Barrett also blames the contractors for not installing it correctly and doing it too late in the year.
"It's sad that we always have to have someone there bird dogging contractors to get it done right." He said contractors that do a lot of painting criticize the tape because it would hurt their businesses if it lasts as long as it is supposed to.
But the contractor that rolled the faulty tape on Foothill, Flasher Barricade, said it did the job with UDOT inspectors looking on. Flasher Vice President Dan Stephens says UDOT's own crews have had more failures installing tape than private contractors.
"It is my feeling that perhaps 3M misrepresented their product's capability to UDOT. If UDOT feels the need to bird dog someone, maybe they should keep an eye on 3M," Stephens said.
The reaction of other contractors to tape is mixed.
"There are some who swear by it and some who swear at it," said Mike Knaras, sales manager for Safety Supply and Sign in West Valley City.
Local contractors agree the tape is difficult to install. If it's just glued onto the road surface, the tape's edge becomes an easy target for the heavy steel blades of snow plows that will rip it up.
Barrett agreed, saying UDOT will work with 3M to change installation specifications to require not only gluing the tape to the road surface but also embedding it into the road. The difference between success and failure, Barrett said, is whether the tape is installed early enough in the construction season to allow traffic to pound and bury the tape's edge into the pavement before winter. The tape's adhesive also bonds better in warmer weather.
To save the tape from plows on concrete roads, Barrett said, UDOT may require the expensive and time-consuming process of sandblasting a groove into the surface before rolling on the tape.
To ensure the tape is embedded into an asphalt road surface, Barrett said all construction and maintenance projects would have to be completed before mid-September. But shifting the state's construction schedule to meet that deadline won't go over well with many contractors, Stephens said, noting that Flasher does 95 percent of its subcontracting work from September through November.
"We don't care when we do the striping, but I can't see the prime contractors being thrilled at the thought of losing half their season just to ensure the striping," he said.
But tightening the construction schedule would only be necessary on jobs that use tape, which may not be all the projects in the future, according to Barrett.
Although it appears the state is sold on tape, Barrett said the product is still in testing status, and the recently formed committee will determine this year which road marking materials work best.
Where tape has stuck and where it hasn't
Successes - where the tape has lived up to its warranty:
- Van Winkle Expressway
- I-70 near Green River
- U.S. 89 from North Salt Lake to Bountiful
Failures -- occuring within the past three years. The tape has been replaced at some of these sites:
- I-15 Point of the Mountain to American Fork
- I-15 near 12000 South
- I-15 near 3300 South
- I-15 near Point of the Mountain
- Underpasses along I-15 in Salt Lake County
- 700 East from 3300 South to 4500 South
- State Street near State Capitol
- 4500 South from I-15 to 2200 West
- 5400 South from I-15 to 1700 West
- 1300 East from 500 South to 2100 South
- Foothill Boulevard from 1300 South to 2100 South
- 300 West from North Temple to 1100 North