Tuesday, April 8, 2003

Road builders seek new ways

Experiments involve material, equipment, methods

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Imagine bridges that last 100 years and road surfaces that last 50 years. Federal highway officials can, as they look for ways to shorten and even eliminate the dreaded summer road construction that plagues drivers everywhere, including the Tristate.

The Federal Highway Administration is seeking money to research new materials, construction methods and even new ways of prodding contractors to finish early. Ohio and Kentucky, along with various local governments, are testing variations of the proposed federal research.

The goal: to reduce costs from repeated maintenance, but also to improve safety by eliminating work zones and reduce traffic jams - along with lost time, wasted fuel and increased air pollution - caused by construction.

"When we talk about 50-year pavements and 100-year bridges, we believe these are practical and prudent goals," said Charles Churilla, research program manager for the highway administration, which oversees the federal highway budget. "We're not saying that they will be put in place and never touched again, but we're talking about stuff that can be done without any interruption to rush hour, so you are not seeing orange cones for three to six months."

The Ohio Department of Transportation today will unveil the projects that are part of this summer's driving season around the Tristate. Major construction jobs expected to be on the list include widening Interstate 75 in northern Hamilton County and southern Butler County and the continued work on Interstate 275 in Boone County.

Federal officials call their road longevity program "Get In, Stay In, Get Out, Stay Out." It's part of a $400 million allocation for research and technology in the Transportation Department's proposed $29.3 billion budget. That request is about $4.4 billion less than last year.

Churilla would not comment on the funding request, because it is still before Congress. But he said that, while new construction techniques and materials may be more expensive up front, they actually could save repair time over the long run, which would help drivers.

"And many of these things we're looking at will even save some time up front," he said, pointing out that as much as half the cost of a particular project can be devoted to keeping traffic flowing. "If you look at the benefit to the end user, it dwarfs the cost to the particular agency."

Ohio and Kentucky have been experimenting with getting contractors to use longer-lasting materials, making pieces of bridges at a factory instead of on-site and guaranteeing their work.

ODOT is in the middle of a pilot project involving five bridges statewide, for example, in which contractors are paid a bonus for making concrete that meet certain strength and density requirements. The same contractors can be docked if the concrete doesn't meet certain specifications.

In 2000, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet awarded a local contractor $2.77 million for finishing the widening and reconstruction of I-275 from I-71/75 to the airport in Northern Kentucky months in advance of the deadline.

That same contractor guaranteed the concrete from failing for 10 years, taking out a $2.9 million bond against any deficiencies in the surface. Other Ohio projects also have had warranties - the standard seven years.

Even local agencies are experimenting. Hamilton County is testing both asphalt and concrete next to each other on the Harrison Avenue project near Interstate 74, which was completed in August. The object is to see which surface lasts longer.

"That's a major arterial with a lot of commercial traffic, so we want this pavement to last, and we know that each manufacturer will be watching the other," said Ted Hubbard, the county's chief deputy engineer. "We're also using composite materials on three bridges on Five Mile Road in Anderson Township.

"This is all about trying to find the material that lasts the longest and getting the best bang for our buck."

One expert says that these goals can be achieved, as long as state agencies are willing to try.

"This is all technology and methods that are out there now," said Richard Miller, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati, who is heading a study to determine the effectiveness of ODOT's pilot bridge program.

"We can make bridges ahead of time and then put them together like Legos," said Miller. "There are a whole new line of high performance materials that are not too much more expensive than the standard. And warranties are being done all the time in Europe."

E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com

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