AL Transportation Conference Discusses Timeless Trends, Challenges

By Steve Hudson | September 28, 2010

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the 50th Annual Alabama Transportation Conference. More than 650 highway contractors, engineers, Alabama DOT personnel, and others from all across the state gathered for the event in Auburn, Ala., where they enjoyed several days of industry-related sessions.

They also got a pretty neat goodie bag when they registered — and one of the most intriguing things in the bag, at least to my eye, was a reproduction of the Proceedings from the very first such conference, held in the late 1950s.

At that time, the conference was called the "Alabama Joint Highway Engineering Conference." It was held at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute and was conceived, the Proceedings noted, "in response to many requests for such a program from County and Highway Department engineers."

The line-up of sessions at that first conference is fascinating. Among them were presentations on the "Design And Construction Of County Roads" and "Economy And Advantages Of Various Bridge Designs" and "New Problems In Acquisition Of Right Of Way." Others included "On-The-Job Studies Of Alabama Bridge Costs," "Interstate Highway Planning Problems," "Highway Engineer Education And Training," and "Maintenance Of Bituminous Pavements." If the topics sound familiar, it's because they're still the kind of thing that contractors and DOT folks talk about. Some things, I guess, never change.

Some other things never change, too, and one of them (also addressed on the program of that very first Alabama conference) has to do with contractors and the heavy equipment that they use.

Among the papers included in that first Proceedings was one entitled "Heavy Equipment," presented by Warren H. Thompson. Thompson was general supervisor, sales development, for the Construction Equipment Division of International Harvester Co. in Chicago, and what he had to say is neat to see from our vantage point a half-century in the future.

He began by looking at what his company's engineering department had previously said about the future design of heavy construction equipment, looking first at an earlier report prepared by the company's Construction Equipment Division. Quoting that report, Thompson noted that "in forecasting future developments of the mobile power plants which we call tractors, we are touching on a subject which is almost limitless in its possibilities." He went on, still quoting, "Three decades ago [that would have been in the 1920s] the construction industry depended largely on mules and muscles of men to complete their projects. From a situation like this where the 'power' was 95% manpower and beastpower, today's typical construction equipment 'spread' gives the contractor a working team depending 95% on machinery and only 5% on the muscles of men and beasts."

I can imagine, at that first conference, that a knowing chuckle may have rippled through the crowd at those words.

That report, Thompson went on to say, noted the availability of "an almost endless variety of equipment for practically every phase of the construction industry" with "terrific increases in size and horsepower" and trends "toward increased ease of control, operator comfort, and protection from noise, dust and heat. It is conceivable," that report added, "that the operator of tomorrow's equipment will be comfortably ensconced in an air-conditioned cab with control tower visibility" and "will use little muscular effort in controlling his giant power plant because power systems will furnish the required controlling forces."

Sound familiar?

"The general trend through the industry seems to be bigger and bigger equipment," Thompson continued, turning from the report to his own thoughts to comment on what he saw as "two of the problems facing a contractor when he considers the purchase of the largest possible size machinery."

Warning: Even now, 50 years later, they're gonna sound familiar too.

"One of the big problems is money," he said, "or rather the lack of it." He added (and remember, this was 1958) that "it is getting harder and harder for the contractor to 'make a buck.'"

"Money is the contractor's biggest and most versatile tool," he continued, "and right now it costs him more to borrow money."

Added to that, he said, is "another problem which every medium to large size contractor in the country faces, and that is the problem of transporting his equipment over existing roads, railroads, etc., from one job to another."

Making those two points — costs were going up, and transporting equipment was becoming a pain — Thompson went on to guess what the future might be bringing.

"The actual physical size of today's construction equipment (the large machines that is) will basically change very little," he predicted, adding, "Instead, the trend will be toward getting more and more production from the same size machine through versatility. There will be a concentration on the part of both the manufacturer and the contractor to make existing machines last longer and do more."

Did his predictions come true?

It's interesting to think about how those predictions played out. Looking backwards can indeed be fun, and it can also be revealing.

Sometimes it amazes me that no matter how much things change, a lot of things still remain the same.