Holy road trip! Shortage of paint for highway stripes

By Julianne Pepitone, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Highway construction could come to a screeching halt this summer due to a shortage of paint.

Road crews have been complaining to the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) that they can't start projects or finish current ones because there isn't enough paint for road stripes, said a rep for the trade association.

"It's not like this is Home Depot, with stacks of stockpiled paint," said AGC spokesman Brian Turmail. "A lot of paint producers are distributing only 50% of what they did last year."

And typically, if the paint isn't down, the job isn't done, and the contractor can't get paid.

"Depending who you speak with, this could be an eight-week problem, or a six-month one," he added. "We're hoping for the former but preparing for the latter."

The problem is two-fold, Turmail said, because two major components of the acrylic paint -- methyl methacrylate and titanium dioxide -- are in short supply.

The shiny stuff: This month, paint producers started warning of a shortage in methyl methacrylate (MMA), a sticky, long-lasting chemical that gives road stripes their reflective quality.

That shortage is in large part because a Texas plant owned by Dow Chemical -- the largest supplier of highway paint -- experienced issues a few weeks ago that resulted in low production rates.

"We began the process of bringing the plant back up over a week ago, and are now running at full production rates," a Dow Chemical spokesman said, adding that it was an industry-wide problem.

"Other companies also took production down a notch because of the downturn," Turmail said. "But when demand started spiking, thanks to some economic turnaround and stimulus projects, we got into a backlog."

The Dow plant is now back in full production, the company said, but Turmail thinks could take months to "get back to 100% supply."

The white stuff: In April, the AGC warned that the paint whitener titanium dioxide was becoming scarce. It's used in both white and yellow road paint, as well as a plethora of unrelated products like sunscreen and LCD screens.

"The symptoms of the problem are good -- that the demand has grown faster than expected," Turmail said. "But since this compound is used in many other products, our roads could suffer for it."

Impact on safety: Roads with faded stripes pose significant safety concerns. Without adequate markers, drivers can drift out of their lanes and cause accidents. In fact, more than 60% of all traffic fatalities are caused by straying drivers, according to a 2008 study by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

In response to shortage reports, the agency requested information from states, which spend about $2 billion per year on road markings. So far only ten have responded, saying they "are aware of the situation" but have continued to receive paint, a AASHTO rep said.

"The states will continue to take a wait-and-see approach, but they're cautiously optimistic that this issue will be resolved before the end of the summer," the rep said.

To save paint in the meantime, state officials may consider painting thinner lines, Turmail said, or using temporary tape and buttons.

Orange cones will also be around construction areas for longer periods of time. And drivers may also be forced to deal with faded lines as transportation officials funnel the limited paint supplies into new projects, Turmail said.

In Texas, officials have already announced a halt on repainting older stripes. Crews will also put "sealcoating" down on some roads to protect them from damage, said a rep for the state's Department of Transportation. Texas, he said, "won't sacrifice safety for a paint issue." To top of page

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