Lack of paint may leave roads stripeless

Road stripes

Nigel Hornsby works on highway 51 in Alabama.


Kai Ryssdal: It occurs to me that we've been doing a lot of commodity stories lately. Pork a couple of days ago. And the BLT price-bump for that summertime sandwich. Also, wheat. Today the Russian government suspended wheat exports for the rest of the year. Their domestic harvest has been clobbered the worst heatwave they've taken in 100 years.

Now, a story about another global shortage. Anna Boiko-Weyrauch had to pull over by the side of Alabama Highway 51 to get this one.

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch: You might have driven by someone like Nigel Hornsby today. He's going exactly five-and-a-half miles an hour, hugging the side of the highway.

Nigel Hornsby: We had no material, I mean we're completely out. And then we got two loads and that's why we're here now striping.

Next to him, a straight white line falls onto the pavement from machines on his truck. Hornsby's company paints the stripes on the road, and he's got a lot of work to do. The federal stimulus is paying to improve this highway, like so many others across the country. But like road stripers all over the U.S., Hornsby has a problem -- he's running out of paint.

See, you can't use any old paint to stripe the road.

HORNSBY: There is no other striping materials. Where there's high traffic, paint probably wouldn't last six months where this material will last 10 years.

Ingredients in road striping come from oil, titanium, and pine tree sap. Last year, there was a really bad harvest of pine trees in Asia. We get a lot of the materials we use in striping from China, but China started using more striping on its own roads, instead of exporting. Back here in the U.S., two big chemical factories had mechanical issues, and then, of course, there's the recession. Manufacturing plants have been pulling back to save money. They've been producing less or shutting down.

TOM MCSWAIN: So it was kind of a perfect storm.

That's Tom McSwain of Ennis Traffic Safety Solutions, the largest producer of road markings. Usually a shortage wouldn't get this bad. But the federal stimulus has funded so many road projects, it's made yellow and white stripes a hot commodity this construction season.

MCSWAIN: Demand is up substantially over where it would be normally, coupled with the fact that the shortage is as severe as it is, we really are feeling a crunch.

In the midst of the crunch, the small Alabama contractor Hornsby Striping has been getting by. Nigel Hornsby only has 10 employees, so he hasn't laid anyone off and doesn't expect to.

HORNSBY: During this slack time, we let them work around our shop you know, just doing odds and ends, cutting grass, things like that.

Hopefully, Hornsby won't have too long to wait. Tom McSwain at Ennis Traffic Safety Solutions says the shortfall should ease off before next spring, at least for factories making some materials.

MCSWAIN: We'd like to think that we're not under shortage conditions the next striping season. We certainly feel that way about paint because this was a mechanical issue, so they will bring their production back up to full speed.

The seasons will come into play as well. Contractors can't stripe in the winter because of the weather, so that should give the supply time to catch up.

On Alabama State Highway 51, I'm Anna Boiko-Weyrauch for Marketplace.

Nigel Hornsby works on highway 51 in Alabama.

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A serious problem occurs where the lanes split toward another highway. Many times there is a marking on the asphalt and sometimes there is a divider curb. In December 2009, on a rainy night typical for Cincinnati, because of the old paint on the side of the curb, I jumped with my Honda Accord over such 2ft wide curb. The only advantage was the continuous width of the curb and no other car coming around. A bad road design combined with the lack of paint makes a difference in going back home or to emergency room. However, because of the fact that such a location it is like no man's land nobody could be made responsible and we the taxpayers suffer.

Mark Adam, I'm with you on getting tired of the overuse of the phrase "perfect storm". I'd suggest the good, ol' fashioned word "coincidence" in this case, but it might not make the sound bite cut.

Is there any chance you can add "perfect storm" to the Cliche Wall? It was originally used to represent three unrelated storms which came together in a way that was greater than their parts. I'd use the word synergy here but that should be carved into the Cliche Wall. Now the overused phrase has come to represent any two events which occur in close proximity to each other.

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