Kirk Landers: Pavement triage

Pavement triage

By Kirk Landers

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Many southbound trips I take from my suburban Chicago home start with three miles of supremely bad road. The route’s main virtue is a lower volume of traffic than the main roads. It’s also more scenic and maybe a little faster in rush hour.

The pavement is a road manager’s nightmare, pocked with cracks and potholes, poorly drained in many places. Through most of the three miles, it is rougher than a street made of speed bumps.

You have roads like this in your area, too.

Until a few years ago, when I drove this road I would think about how it could best be resurrected. Since I was coming at it from the point of view of a journalist, I would try to apply whatever road technology I was learning about at the time. Crack and seat for the concrete? Whitetopping? Drainage fixes? Full depth reclamation for the asphalt sections? Cold-in-place? Full reconstruction?

Since debate started on the new federal highway program (the one we don’t have yet) the significance of roads like this has changed in my mind.

With marginal funding for highways looking more likely all the time, roads like my beloved Crater Boulevard (its real condition, but not its real name) have a special status in the pavement management strategies of the early 21st Century. They are the roads we sacrifice for the greater good.

We can’t keep all roads smooth and safe. There just isn’t the funding or the political will to do that. So pavement managers all over the country have wisely begun to put a funding priority on extending the life of vital roads and viable pavements. High volume roads get what they need. Lower volume roads in good shape get life-extending maintenance because it’s the best use of limited funds. Cracksealing. Seals. Thin overlays. Drainage maintenance. Mill and fill. You can keep many miles of healthy pavement healthy for the price of replacing one mile of bad pavement.

Whatever budget is left, if any, is spent on expensive repairs and reconstruction, with the highest volume pavements coming first.

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In this brave new pavement triage system, tertiary roads like my Crater Boulevard will never make the list of the living. Too few people use the road, and the total rebuild it needs would suck up dollars that could extend the life of dozens of miles of high-volume pavement.

So Crater Boulevard will just continue to deteriorate. We who use the road won’t notice the deterioration until something cataclysmic occurs, mainly because the ride is so rough now you can’t feel the new cracks and crevices. Eventually, we will lose the use of a lane here and there due to a leviathan pothole or a spring flood that washes away a gaping section. But even then, it’s hard to see a road manager making the case for millions of dollars for a total rebuild for the whole road, not when major highways all around this road are suffering from congestion, overload and their own deferred investments.

For the residents who need the road for access to their homes, the bone-jarring inconvenience of a rough road is a problem with a benefit: traffic speed on the road has been declining with pavement conditions. For those of us who opt to use it for commuting, the same applies. When the road gets so bad that we commuters use other roads, the residents will get another benefit from living with a bad road: even less traffic.

Personally, I don’t think this a good way to run a transportation system. But for reasons good or bad, that’s where we are. And that is why it is so important that the next federal highway program give state and local road managers great flexibility in how they spend federal road dollars. We’re in the triage era, and triage can only be done by the (road) doctor on the scene.v