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Credit: Hiuling Chow

Far left: A well-built and -maintained road lasts longer and can cost far less over time than a neglected one. Left: Fresh asphalt awaits traffic in the Marietta Street Streetscape Improvements project in Powder Springs, Ga.

Pavement maintenance on city streets, county roads, and arterial highways typically is conducted on a case-by-case, season-by-season basis, with roadway managers assessing needs as they are dictated by current roadway surface conditions. This approach amounts to “chasing potholes.” It can be frustrating, and, in the long run, counterproductive and far more expensive than it needs to be.

There's a better way to manage pavement. The key is understanding the asphalt life cycle and how roadways deteriorate. Combine this understanding with an effective pavement life-cycle management (PLCM) approach and roadway managers can save thousands, if not millions, in roadway repair or replacement costs.

As most pavement managers know, it doesn't take long for a small pavement problem to become a big problem. According to studies done in the southeastern United States, roadway systems maintained in a timely manner decline more gradually than roadways in systems where careful inspection is done infrequently and asset-management decisions are deferred.

In those cases, a sharp decline in the condition of asphalt surfaces may be observed after only 10 years, with critical repairs called for after only 15 years. Compare this with carefully and regularly maintained systems in which roadways may remain in good or better condition for as long as 25 years.

This drop-off is so pronounced that there can be a huge difference in costs—as much as 400%—between either maintaining pavement at its optimal condition or repairing the pavement (chasing potholes) only after the condition has become critical.

What we have learned is that by actively maintaining a systematic approach to roadway maintenance—one that combines annual inspections, information-gathering technology, knowledge of asphalt life-cycle trends, and the determination of roadway management priorities—public sector asset management can be a very effective and highly efficient practice.

A successfully implemented PLCM program can help roadway managers target critical milestones in the pavement life-cycle, select the optimal time for repairs, assess overall maintenance needs, assist in contract management, and contribute dramatically to improved surface conditions throughout an entire roadway system.

The first and most important step in implementing a PLCM plan is an ongoing and extremely detailed assessment of roadway surface conditions. Inspectors with considerable experience in road building and local conditions should be deployed, preferably on a year-round basis. The inspectors should be trained to use the latest data-collection technology, specifically hand-held computers, global positioning systems, and digital cameras.

The information is then entered in a series of categories within PLCM database software that describe the roadway, detail its condition, and include related factors such as surrounding assets and drainage status. While this detailed assessment process may sound more elaborate than many pavement managers might feel is necessary, it actually has proven to be quite efficient.

RATINGS BASED ON INSPECTION

Once all the data are collected, the PLCM software produces a series of ratings based on information gathered, historical data already entered, and information about surrounding conditions. These last two items are especially important. In roadway maintenance, past performance can be one of the most critical factors in assessment and forecasting, especially when it contains a long-term history of response to various environmental and use conditions specific to that region.