Pavement Economics Committee Turns Projects Quickly
BY Ron White
In the fall of 2012, an idea was born. The asphalt pavement industry, always seeking to build high-quality roadways for owners and the traveling public, launched a new effort to support short-term and timely, scientific, engineering research that is focused on delivering tools and knowledge that highlights asphalt’s competitive advantages.
Our past efforts centered on long-term, strategic efforts that yielded powerful results such as the establishment of the National Center for Asphalt Technology in 1986; our 2006 partnership with the Federal Highway Administration to deploy warm-mix asphalt; the 12-year silica/asphalt milling machine partnership that involved the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, labor unions and milling machine manufacturers; and the decades-long research undertaken for the International Agency for Research on Cancer review on asphalt paving fumes. These and many other successful research projects allowed the industry to proactively move forward, delivering innovation and high-quality products while also ensuring worker health and safety.
While these long-term projects resulted in important advances for the industry, there remained a clear need for shorter, one- or two-year, research projects that bring innovations and new ideas to market quickly and efficiently. This need became the foundation for the Pavement Economics Committee (PEC), which is supported by the nation’s 39 state asphalt pavement associations and the National Asphalt Pavement Association.
PEC is an important part of the industry’s efforts to impact the pavement of the future. This entails looking at what drivers want and need from roads, as well as at road owners’ needs. It means thinking about asphalt pavements in ways that highlight why they are smart, sustainable and resilient systems. The key word here is system. We build pavements in layers to ensure performance. But we must be smart about our designs, and optimize mixes and materials selection for each layer’s purpose. For example, it makes sense to use higher percentages of recycled material in the base for additional cost-savings and polymer-modified asphalts on the surface for long-term performance. This improves the system’s resilience.
We also need to think about how asphalt pavements are part of an intermodal system that keeps our economy running. Getting raw materials to factories, food from farms, and goods to stores is an intermodal process, and just as departments of transportation are looking at how ports and rail and highways work together, we have to think about how our pavements interact with these other transportation modes and why asphalt pavements are the best pavements for supporting economic activity.
Asphalt pavements are the quickest pavements to construct and maintain, and when road conditions and needs change, it’s easier to add structure and change the surface mixture to meet those changing demands. Thin overlays restore smoothness for improved drivability and fuel economy and, in some cases, can add structural strength to handle increasing traffic volume, and open-graded friction courses can be added to improve safety in wet weather. And, of course, asphalt maintenance activities can generate raw materials for new pavements in the form of RAP. These are the sorts of advantages that PEC research can help quantify and amplify.
PEC’s research—overseen by the Best Quality & Competitiveness, Environmental Sustainability, Pavement Design, Pavement Preservation, and Pavement Type Selection task groups—strives to develop science-based research projects that examine, calibrate and ease implementation of the core needs of road-owners in ways that deliver the pavement systems of the future. The PEC Legislative Task Group monitors state and federal legislation that relates to pavement type selection, and lobbies Congress on research outcomes.
PEC’s roadmap is guided by representatives from the state associations and NAPA’s producer members. Working with these leaders are academic teams at NCAT, Texas A&M Transportation Institute, and Arizona State University, as well as FHWA and commercial operations, such as Seattle-based Pavia Systems and LCA engineering firm TriSight of Houghton, Michigan.
To date, 22 technical projects are underway, examining three strategic focus areas: technology and innovation, environmental sustainability, and pavement preservation. The technology and innovation focus ensures that asphalt pavements are correctly designed and built—examining pavement thicknesses, mix designs, structural designs and best practices. Environmental sustainability examines asphalt pavements’ roles in our sustainable future, developing tools that quantify the environmental impact of asphalt pavements during their construction and use, and articulating these findings to green rating systems to ensure our pavements are recognized on par with other construction materials. Pavement preservation ensures that Thinlays are positioned as the preferred pavement preservation technique for extending pavement life while providing a smooth ride, modest improvement in pavement strength, enhanced safety, and responsible use of natural resources through reuse and recycling.
Asphalt pavements have a long history of innovation and performance, and asphalt pavements will continue to be central to mobility and commerce long into the future. To ensure this, we as an industry will continue to use engineering and science to improve our materials and our practices, and when it comes to charting that path forward, PEC research is leading the way.
Ron White is Vice Chairman of Superior Paving Corporation located in Gainesville, Va. Ron served as Chairman of NAPA in 2007 and currently serves as Chairman of the Pavement Economics Committee.