In need of a fresh coat of paint


According to Texas political humorist Jim Hightower, there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos. But a new nationwide shortage of pavement marking paint could be changing that to no stripes and more dead motorists.

Highway engineers in Minnesota’s Winona County and elsewhere are reporting cutbacks in road striping because production problems, the economic downturn and resurgent demand have drained supplies of the chemicals that make the paint durable and reflective. In some areas it’s led to layoffs and delays or skipping shoulder striping to save paint for the centerlines.

That’s a shame, especially for Minnesota’s efforts to reduce mayhem on the rural roads that account for two-thirds of traffic fatalities. Wider centerline stripes – 6 inches instead of  the old standard of 4 inches – are intended to cut down the deadliest crashes, head-ons caused by cars straying from their lanes. But that requires 50 percent more paint, and many roads have to be re-striped every year to keep the markings visible.

Road striping is one of those ubiquitous safety measures that hardly anyone ever thinks about, but last year the Minnesota Department of Transportation spent $12 million on paint, reflective tape and labor to lay down nearly 22,000 miles of white and yellow lines. This year the department is expecting higher prices and delivery delays of up to four weeks, but hasn’t hit any problems yet. That could happen toward the end of the construction season in the fall, said Mitch Bartelt, MnDOT pavement marking engineer.

In Texas, where 32,000 miles of striping is planned for state highways this year, officials plan to post “no center stripe” signs to warn drivers if paint isn’t available. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that in Minnesota.