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Paint shortage stains road-building season

Yellow paint lining streets like this one in downtown Milwaukee may become obsolete due to a shortage in supplies used to make striping paint. (Photo by Sean Ryan)

Yellow paint lining streets like this one in downtown Milwaukee may become obsolete due to a shortage in supplies used to make striping paint. (Photo by Sean Ryan)

By Sean Ryan

Wisconsin highway planners and suppliers are coping for the first time with the prospect they wont have enough paint for the year’s road projects.

News of nationwide road paint shortages rippled across Wisconsin in the past week after paint producers such as Dallas-based Ennis Traffic Safety Solutions and the Road Safety Markings Association sent letters warning of shortages and price increases.

Mike Aders, general manager at Madison-based Mega Rentals Inc., said he cannot get a straight answer from paint producers on when more paint will be for sale.

“I might be OK with white paint,” he said, “and I certainly don’t have enough yellow.”

A letter Ennis sent April 23 warned the four primary ingredients of road paint are all facing cost increases and shortages. Dow Chemical is cutting back production of two of the needed ingredients, making it difficult for paint producers to get the chemicals.

Paint producers are struggling to buy rosin esters because other industries, such as adhesives producers, are demanding more and will pay higher prices for the rosin. Finally, the white pigment for the paint is in high demand in Asia after producers of the pigment scaled back production during the recession.

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As a result, Ennis is regimenting the paint it is selling to different customers in order to spread out its limited supply.

In the wake of fears the nationwide problems will lead to shortages in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is taking a statewide survey of suppliers and county highway departments to see how much paint is left, said Tom Notbohm, WisDOT state traffic engineer of design.

“We are still gathering information about how much is available in stock,” he said, “but I expect there will be a shortage for our needs.”

Aders said he’s tallying how much paint he has left from the stock he bought earlier this year, but he’s not sure if it will last throughout the road-building season. He said Ennis cut his allocation 20 percent in April and 20 percent again this month. He said he does not expect to be able to buy more before Labor Day.

Bruce Stelzner, Chippewa County highway commissioner, said he has enough stock for his county roads because he bought early in the year. He said he’s willing to share if WisDOT needs some.

The shortage will lead to faded center lines, which will create safety problems during heavy rain, Stelzner said. He said he does not like the idea of cutting back on line painting each year.

Mark Servi, Barron County highway commissioner, said he got nervous when news of the shortages broke last week because the county set a Monday due date for its annual paint supply contract. He said he was relieved when bids came in with prices similar to those the county paid in 2009. He said suppliers may still be unloading their unused stock.

“I was wondering if I was going to get any prices,” he said, “because when that came out last week, it was prior to us getting any envelopes.”

Notbohm said he is investigating other types of paint that are not in such short supply but does not know if it will satisfy state standards for longevity. WisDOT sets standards for road paint and cannot use products that will fade quickly and must be repainted.

“If we still found that there’s an inadequate supply, I think we’ll be forced with the decision of which lines will be prioritized,” he said, “versus which ones will be postponed.”

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