Our nation’s roadways are not in good shape. It doesn’t help that most of our attention is focused on paving and developing new roads, as opposed to fixing our old ones. From 2004 to 2008, many states spent only 43 percent of their road budgets on maintaining existing roadways. The other 1 percent — which entails new construction — got over half of all the money. This is despite the fact that older, existing roads make up about 99 percent of our infrastructure system.
Expansion and development are clearly more important to the powers that be. Unfortunately, there’s no proof that it’s really helping anything. Despite many roadways being expanded or improved through new developments, the changes don’t necessarily help congestion and traffic issues.
Many popular and regularly traversed roads are riddled with potholes, cracks, major bumps or some form of tire-destroying breakage. Is this from wear and tear, or is it from shoddy construction to begin with?
You Get What You Pay For
Believe it or not, road construction is not as easy as you’d think. It’s not about slapping down some remedial layers, paving over the top and going about your business. There’s a lot more to it than that, specifically regarding logistics. For example, the thickness of the overall layers and the materials used should be different depending on environmental conditions.
In areas with lots of runoff, for instance, the water can seep underneath the pavement and cause cracking and major issues. In cold regions, snow and ice can contribute to more frequent damage, even on new roads.
If and when a road is built using a solid foundation, thick layers offer more reliability. The Autobahn in Germany requires little to no maintenance because it was developed with such a solid series of methods and materials.
Thinner roads with less reliable materials, on the other hand, will naturally see more damage over a shorter period of time. Most American roadways are developed or restructured using thin layers, in an effort to cut costs.
That’s not including the dangers of development and road construction for the people who regularly improve our roadways. Roughly 20,000 construction workers are injured each year in highway and street construction accidents. This also contributes to longer development cycles and less than phenomenal results. Construction workers are decreasing in numbers and experience poor work conditions.
If we wanted to keep the nation’s roadways in good condition, it would require nearly $45.2 billion in funds per year, as opposed to the $16.5 billion we currently spend.
What’s the game plan then? How can we expect to improve American highways and infrastructure if we don’t have or want to allocate the necessary resources?
Saving America’s Infrastructure
Self-driving vehicles and cars are the future, not flying ones. That means we are still going to need American infrastructure and major roadways. It’s best we start thinking about how to improve and maintain them now, rather than years down the line when everything is decrepit.
Step one is to start funneling more funds and resources from new developments and expansions to old roadways. This strategy has been dubbed the Fix It First approach, first proposed by David Levinson and Matthew Kahn in 2011.
Instead of wasting money on new construction, the approach calls for us to “repair, maintain, rehabilitate, reconstruct, and enhance existing roadways and bridges” first. While we’re at it, we can incorporate some of the newer technologies and solutions that have cropped up in recent years. Most roadways were developed long before such opportunities were around.
Imagine connected roadways and signage that can be used to improve transportation and maintenance, and even keep the proper authorities informed. The sensors and technology used can be embedded within existing roadways during a refurbishment procedure.
Picture this: You’re driving down the road in the pitch black, rain is pouring down in sheets and visibility is poor. Up ahead, the curved road is cracked and worn, making for a dangerous situation exacerbated by the thick layer of water pooling up. Sensors embedded below the roads surface can send an alert to your vehicle, letting you know what to expect ahead. The vehicle could then be slowed down by the driver — or an automated system — to make a safer, more capable turn.
Roadways can also be developed to eliminate this scenario completely. There is a type of concrete, for instance, that can absorb water, preventing it from pooling on the surface.
While we’re repairing and maintaining, we can also improve and make room for the future of our nation’s roadways. This will help eliminate the need for further development and diverted resources. Solid foundations and materials would mean less work for our infrastructure system going forward.
Megan Ray Nichols
Freelance Science Writer
Megan Ray Nichols is a STEM writer and the editor of Schooled By Science. She regularly writes for IMPO Magazine and American Machinist. For more from Megan, follow her on Twitter, @nicholsrmegan, or subscribe to her blog.