Paint is cheap, or is it?

Painting road lines requires multiple vehicles and workers. (Photo provided by Dave Werner)

A column last month discussed how centerline and edge line markings on our highways make driving easier and safer. That article explained the requirements that mandated pavement markings, where they were optional and where they were not recommended without a compelling engineering reason for applying them. This article prompted the question, “Why wouldn’t the lines be required on all roads if it made driving easier and safer?” Good question. After all, paint is cheap, isn’t it?

Well, the answer to this is no, painting lines on our highways is not cheap. There are many things that go into the equation. The cost isn’t just the paint. It also includes equipment, manpower and, on state highways, reflective beads in the paint to make the lines more visible at night.

In the summer of 2012, I had the opportunity to ride with a New York State Department of Transportation paint crew, painting lines on two state routes in St. Lawrence and Franklin counties. Region 7 of NYS DOT has two paint crews, one based in Watertown and the one I rode with based in Malone. When they paint road lines, they use four vehicles: the paint truck, two shadow vehicles with attenuators to cushion a crash should a vehicle not stop before running into the rear of the mobile work zone, and a small truck leading the procession to warn oncoming drivers of the line painting process, which is essentially a moving work zone.

The state crews use a high-quality epoxy paint, which wears better than other paints. They generally paint the yellow centerlines twice each year and the edge or fog lines once.

Painting costs are hard to define, but after speaking with several transportation officials, a ballpark amount is $750 to $1,000 a mile. Pavement markings must be reapplied as needed to maintain good visibility. Failure to do so can result in a liability risk to the municipality. The effectiveness of markings decreases as they wear, especially at night. So putting pavement lines on highways is not really cheap. This is why pavement markings are required only on roads with a significant amount of traffic.

The bottom line is that the state highways, which generally have more traffic than local roads, are usually blessed with pavement lines whereas town roads generally do not. County roads fall in between, with many of them having lines and others not.

And if you get this far in the article, here’s a little trivia. Those broken centerlines, where passing is allowed, are 10 feet in length, and the in-between portion is 30 feet in length. Bet you thought both were shorter. When I ask this question, most people guess 3 to 5 feet for the painted lines and 10 to 15 feet for the in-between portion.


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