Roadway technologies could help heal transportation infrastructure woes

Innovative roadway technologies could help address more than $800 billion worth of upkeep and repairs needed to maintain America's transportation infrastructure

Transportation infrastructure and its upkeep is one of the country's greatest ongoing needs. But, help -- in the form of several roadway technologies that extend road life -- are in development, according to a recent report in Architect Magazine. These innovations could help cities as well as states and Federal governments needing to address dangerously underfunded highway maintenance.

The 2017 annual infrastructure report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. roadways a D-rating and discussed elevated safety concerns over maintenance backlogs:

One out of every five miles of highway pavement is in poor condition and our roads have a significant and increasing backlog of rehabilitation needs,” the report reads. “After years of decline, traffic fatalities increased by 7 percent from 2014 to 2015, with 35,092 people dying on America’s roads.”
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Research Developing Self-Healing Asphalt

One of the biggest challenges for city leaders is keeping up with the amount of pot holes and breaks in roads. Several scientific breakthroughs around the world have led to the creation of self-healing asphalt to combat the problems of conventional bitumen.

Scientists at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands infused electrically conductive fibers and fillers in the configuration of closed-loop circuits, melting any cracks in an asphalt road and resealing them.

Similarly, a collaboration between scientists from ETH Zurich and the research organization Empa were able to heal asphalt cracks within seconds using iron oxide nanoparticles injections and alternating magnetic fields.

A team at the University of Minnesota Duluth used materials found at the Mesabi Iron Range and mixed them with crushed, recycled asphalt from roads and house shingles, that can be used to patch cracks.

Innovative Roadway Technologies Reduce Road Maintenance

Aside from fixing existing problems, researchers have also developed new ways to keep roads from showing wear and tear. One of the biggest culprits of asphalt damage is water intrusion, and several new roadway material technologies address it.

Permeable paving materials would allow water to drip through roads, preventing pooling and freezing, which causes breaks and cracks in the asphalt. Such material would also be beneficial to the environment.

There is a growing ‘urban surface evolution’ that is supporting the shift from gray infrastructure to green infrastructure,” writes the National Center for Sustainable Transportation in a 2015 study. “The increased use of permeable pavements is part of this movement given the many environmental, socioeconomic and human health benefits these pavements provide, such as reduction in roadway noise, runoff and urban heat island effect as well as improved water quality.”

In Japan, high-traffic areas, such as roads near train stations, are kept clear of snow with and ice by underground pipes circulating warm water.

The implementation of smart roads and walkways are also another consideration for communities looking for permanent solutions for upkeep. A tile-based paving system created by Solar Roadways uses solar panels with LED lights and heating elements to create a walkable, bike-able, maintenance-free surface.

Scientists from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln created a solution using electric currents in concrete that can prevent ice and snow accumulation completely using 48 volts of electricity.

Roadway Technology Costs Deter Implementation

While there's no question the advanced roadway technologies could create safer, more well-managed roads, the problem is their higher costs. For example, conducive concrete roads -- electrically heated roads that can melt snow -- would cost $300 per cubic yard versus $120 per cubic yard of conventional materials.

The ASCE report suggests a "road diet," with the goal of reducing the number of lanes over time and added safety features.

One solution being tested in a highly trafficked area of more than 50 blocks in Kansas City, Missouri, uses sensors, computer algorithms and weather and road history data to predict which zones develop potholes. Such data insights would support decisions on where innovative roadway technologies are most needed to reduce road maintenance.

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