THE Clifton Avenue Bridge over Interstate-280 and the New Jersey Transit railroad tracks in Newark is a cratered moonscape, a patchwork of cracks, pockmarks and potholes that make vehicle shock absorbers rattle and drivers bounce like Muppets.
The bridge is scheduled to be replaced this summer. But because of the skyrocketing cost of asphalt — one more bit of fallout from soaring oil prices — this project, like more than a dozen statewide, may be held off until next year, New Jersey officials said.
That upsets Ruben Morales, who lives nearby and drives his Mercedes-Benz CL500 and his motorcycle over the rough terrain daily.
“I’ve bent the rims of my motorcycle on those potholes,” said Mr. Morales, 29, a corrections officer. “It’s been bad for years.”
As the cost of asphalt, a petroleum-based product, keeps going up, state and local officials around the region are postponing road repairs that are not deemed crucial and all but halting new road construction.
In Westchester and on Long Island, the New York State Department of Transportation is working to make all necessary road repairs because of the high level of traffic in and out of New York City, said Skip Carrier, a department spokesman.
“It’s a question of how quickly we can get to the projects, not that we won’t do the projects,” he said. “It’s a necessary part of maintaining our infrastructure; we have to do the work.”
The highways on Long Island, he said, are not only vital to commuters but also to commercial and freight traffic. In Westchester, he said, the high volume of commuter traffic makes road repairs there crucial.
Mr. Carrier said, however, that Gov. David A. Paterson had asked the Transportation Department to cut its budget by more than 3 percent, which could affect how quickly roads get repaved.
Asphalt is made of two parts — an aggregate, of stones or gravel, and a binder, a sticky tarlike substance made from petroleum. The cost of the binder, which makes up 6 percent of the mixture that covers roads, has gone up 16 percent since April and more than 40 percent since last year, said Kenneth D. Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, a trade association. The cost of asphalt itself has gone up more than 5 percent since April and 10 percent in the past year, he said.
The price of the diesel fuel needed to help crush stone from quarries and haul asphalt to road construction sites is also cranking up costs, Mr. Simonson said. So are new technologies that refine crude oil into more valuable petroleum products, like diesel and gasoline, and leave less low-grade material for road paving.
The cost of fuel means that drivers are driving less, which means less gasoline tax revenue for states to fill Transportation Department coffers, said David Weinstein, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. And high diesel costs coupled with the housing slump have resulted in fewer tractor-trailers hauling home building materials and furniture, resulting in less diesel tax revenue for states, he said.
Between January and May 2004, New Jersey took in more than $198 million in gasoline taxes and more than $46 million in diesel taxes, Mr. Weinstein said. For that period this year, those numbers were around $184 million and $45 million, respectively.
Even though the price of asphalt has doubled since 2005, the Connecticut Department of Transportation is moving ahead with all scheduled repairs, 250 to 300 miles of two-lane roads, said Kevin Nursick, a department spokesman.
“For years to come it would certainly be a factor in determining which projects move ahead,” he said.
Having seen the cost of asphalt rise drastically last summer, Westchester road officials budgeted for what they thought was a high estimate of this year’s increase, 15 percent. But the price went up nearly 20 percent, said Ralph Butler, the county’s commissioner of public works.
Westchester is moving forward with repaving almost 12 miles of road at a cost of almost $9 million, or nearly $90 a ton of asphalt, up from $72 last year, Mr. Butler said.
But Bergen County, N.J., will repave only 23 miles of road, not the 32 that were scheduled, because of the cost of asphalt, said Mabel Aragon, a county spokeswoman.
New Jersey, according to its Transportation Department, paid $49.46 per ton for asphalt in 2001 and will pay $88.71 this year — a 79 percent increase in seven years.
IN addition to $200 million budgeted for road repairs this summer, the New Jersey Transportation Department also budgeted up to $25 million for fuel price adjustments, money a contractor can apply for should the price of fuel jump before the completion of a job. Despite that, many contractors say they are working for less profit, and therefore can hire fewer workers.
Chris Janeira, 24, of Kearny, has worked paving roads for seven years. This year, he has been doing odd jobs to make ends meet because he has less paving work.
“I keep calling, they keep saying, ‘Next month, next month, costs are too high right now,’ ” said Mr. Janeira, who is a member of Heavy and General Construction Laborers Union Local 472. “This is a bad summer.”
New Jersey had set an aggressive goal to repave enough roads so that Transportation Department officials would have to fill only 50,000 to 75,000 potholes annually, Commissioner Kris Kolluri said. Two years ago, the state filled 300,000 potholes; last year, 200,000. Rising asphalt costs will make it more difficult to cut that number more this year, he said.
“On the one hand, we have inflation; on the other we have a financial crisis, so it becomes a very challenging balancing act,” he said. “But it’s about efficiency and safety.”
Though New Jersey officials say they are proceeding with all scheduled road work, there is anecdotal evidence that repairs are needed. According to AAA, there has been a 12.8 percent increase in the number of flat tires reported to the organization on roads throughout New Jersey from May 1 through June 17.
Might delayed repairs result in less roadwork this year and therefore fewer traffic jams? Unfortunately not, Mr. Kolluri said.
“I wish that was the silver lining around this dark issue,” he said. “However, traffic congestion is part of how the network works.”