San Antonio’s quarries help keep costs of area construction projects in line

San Antonio’s quarries help keep costs of area construction projects in lineLisa Y. Taylor The upcoming SBC Center, the Costco warehouse store on Interstate 10, and portions of Loop 1604 have one thing in common. Many of their basic components can be traced to quarries right in our backyard. The San Antonio area is home to 14 quarries, mostly operated by the nation’s top two producers of construction aggregates — the crushed stone, sand and gravel used for building roads, sidewalks and foundations. Having nearby quarries means investment in the local economy and price efficiencies for construction contractors based here. While appreciated by many in the construction industry, the quarry companies have had to earn their favor with residents who live near their operations. Quarries here employ about 1,400 with an annual payroll of more than $50 million, estimates Bruce Vaio, president of the locally-based southwest division of Martin Marietta Materials Inc., which runs five quarries and one sand plant in San Antonio. On top of that, the industry annually spends more than $20 million to hire local truckers to transport its materials to customers. The area west of San Antonio and north to Austin is rich in limestone. “It makes excellent construction stone,” Vaio says. “The particular area is just very high in limestone deposits, and it lends itself very well to the management of construction materials.” Calcium carbonate, the main component of limestone, is pervasive in everyday products, says Tom Ransdell, president of Vulcan Materials Co.’s southwest division that has its headquarters in San Antonio. “Our product is used for many things from toothpaste to concrete for housing, and so there are a lot of end users for our product that people just don’t have a sense for,” he says. Nationally, 3 billion tons of construction aggregate were produced in 2000 at a value of about $14.2 billion, estimates the U.S. Geological Survey. Raleigh, N.C.-based Martin Marietta (NYSE: MLM) is the nation’s second largest producer of aggregates and has the biggest quarry operation in the city. Its Beckman Quarry that lies northeast of Interstate 10 and north of Loop 1604 is one of the top-five producing quarries of crushed stone and granite in the United States. Annually, the 1,400-acre quarry produces more than 10 million tons of aggregate materials. The McDonough family started the Beckman Quarry in 1934. Martin Marietta purchased the active portion of the quarry in 1998 as part of its acquisition of Redland Stone Products Co. Half of Martin Marietta’s clients are road and bridge, and public works subcontractors. The rest are subcontractors needing materials to build the foundations and walls of commercial buildings, and infrastructure and foundations for residential subdivisions. Vulcan Materials (NYSE:VMC), the leading aggregates company in the nation, has operated quarries here since 1972. The Birmingham, Ala.-based company has four limestone quarry properties ranging from 350 to 1,000 acres, four asphalt plants and three ready-mixed concrete plants in the San Antonio area. Its materials are being used to build the Interstate 10/Loop 410 project currently underway and can be found in the Alamodome. “The quarry industry is the building block for San Antonio, and so it has a very major and significant impact to the economy and to the growth of the infrastructure here in San Antonio and Bexar County,” Ransdell says. Price savings Having two major quarry operations here brings significant savings to subcontractors, developers and ultimately the end users of the projects, Ransdell says. “The quarries are here because there is an abundant quantity of limestone in the Edwards Limestone Formation, so the value it brings to this community is the cost of transportation that would be involved in hauling the product to a more remote location,” he says. Transportation cost is the primary factor determining the delivered price of aggregates, with the freight costs sometimes exceeding the product price alone. The quality of aggregates at Martin Marietta and Vulcan Materials are similar, so competing comes down to price, says Sam Clark, vice president of Texas Sterling Construction Co., which buys from both businesses. “I have to be competitive with other contractors, so I have to put the lower cost in my bids,” he says. Texas Sterling has offices in both Houston and San Antonio that purchase limestone for road construction. “The same product in Houston costs considerably more than in San Antonio because of the source of the aggregate,” Clark says. For instance Martin Marietta will sell road base materials for $5.75 a ton if shipped within 10 miles of its local quarries, but will charge $13.75 if sent via railroad to Houston. About half of Martin Marietta’s materials stay in the local market, and the other half is shipped to Houston and South Texas, areas that do not mine limestone. “For a dollar spent, you can get more miles for a road than what you can in other areas,” Vaio says. “For the residential side, the end buyer is going to get more home in San Antonio than he can in other markets.” Fostering relations Subdivisions are moving closer to the Beckman Quarry, and there are occasions when some residents can feel the vibrations from mining detonations. “We take actions to make sure the vibrations are well below the level that would cause any sort of damage to a home,” Vaio says. The proximity of homes has pushed Martin Marietta to balance the needs of the neighborhoods with its own production needs. “Ten years ago, it was typical for a quarry operating to take an out-of-sight and out-of-mind approach,” he says. “What we see in this day and age is the industry taking a very open approach, inviting the general public to see what we’re doing and soliciting their input on how we can collectively work together.” Through developing joint committees made of Martin Marietta and neighborhood leaders, the company made agreements with the communities of Shavano Park and Rogers Ranch to reduce operating hours, post monitors of seismic activity related to explosive blasts, add landscape features and maintain adequate buffers. “Once there is a level of open communication and education, when it comes to understanding the needs of the quarry, what we do, how we do it and how safe our operations are, I’ve found the neighborhood groups to be very reasonable,” Vaio says. Vulcan Materials holds open house tours of its Huebner Oaks Quarry. “We’re just helping our neighbors understand what we do and taking the mystery out of the quarry,” Ransdell says. Room for growth Martin Marietta just started mining a newly leased 440-acre site in the eastern portion of Beckman Quarry that will provide another estimated 20-year supply of aggregates. About 65 percent of the quarry is available for mining, Vaio says. He envisions that when it is mined out, it will continue to make an impact on the economy as it is converted to anything from a shopping mall to a golf course resort. “Forty to 50 years from now, Beckman Quarry will be a premier development in the city,” he says. Fiesta Texas, Trinity University, Alamo Quarry Market, Sunken Gardens and the San Antonio Zoo were all built on former quarries. When finished in San Antonio, Martin Marietta doesn’t plan to leave the area. Since 1995, it has operated a quarry in Medina County near Helotes, and could expand there or in areas along Interstate 35 north of San Antonio, Vaio says. “Within San Antonio proper, it will be very difficult to permit another quarry, so we have to start looking to see where the reserves are,” he says. Vulcan Materials’ area quarries have remaining life spans ranging from 25 to 40 years. It has one in Medina County, and is looking at another site there, Ransdell says. For the year’s first quarter, dry weather and high levels of construction have led to strong local demand for aggregates, and the rest of the year should see slow to moderate growth, Vaio says. However, for the latter half of the year, Ransdell is concerned about the Texas Department of Transportation’s budget for the building an
d maintenance of roads. “They are spending less as we understand it mainly because contractors have completed work at a more rapid pace than anticipated, and as a result, their cash flow has gone out faster than it has come in based on their projections,” he says. The quarry industry has benefited from the federal Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) enacted in 1998. The legislation appropriated $218 billion to spend on transportation through 2003, a 44 percent increase from the prior major transportation act passed in 1991. The law also has allowed Texas to keep more of its fuel tax revenue to use on state road improvements, rather than a major portion going to the federal government for redistribution to other states. Vaio has heard it is likely that Congress will renew funding at an equal or greater level than the 1998 appropriation. “A real critical element for all of us in the industry is what’s going to be done post-2003, when TEA-21 expires,” Vaio says. “There is a definite need not only in Texas but throughout the entire United States to rehabilitate our entire infrastructure.” Lisa Y. Taylor is a San Antonio-based free-lance writer

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