Take Me Home (To Better Infrastructure)

Sept. 6, 2022
Five ways to advance rural road maintenance

By Magdy Mikhail, Contributing Author

Funding is a challenge for state, county, and local entities that manage roadway maintenance — particularly when it comes to rural roads.

A high percentage of money is spent on roads with higher traffic volumes. A commonly quoted statistic from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) is that while only 19% of Americans live in rural areas, 68% of the nation’s total lane miles are located in rural areas. What’s worth noting is that 43% of highway fatalities occur on rural roads.

While some of the federal funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law may be allotted for rural road maintenance, transportation agencies need to take deliberate action to make the best use of the funds. Here are five ways that can improve rural road maintenance practices at the state, county, and local level.

Consider Multi-Sourced Funding: Since improving roadway condition is one of the stated goals of the federal infrastructure bill, and around 55% of those allotted funds will go to state and local governments, now is the time for local transportation entities to make an appeal to their state counterparts for maintenance funds. Grant funds, such as those offered through the Rural Surface Transportation Grant Program, are also available.

And on the topic of grant funds, don’t forget to evaluate federal programs that reimburse for indirect costs. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Guide for Indirect Cost Determination, these costs may include “salaries, consultant fees, printing, postage, travel” and other expenses related to fundraising.

Make a Case for Technology Investment: One of the biggest challenges facing local agencies is limited staffing. Often one engineer is responsible for road and bridge design, traffic management, and roadway maintenance. That’s a lot of hats to wear with little time to keep up with new innovations and adopt newer, more effective practices. Consider investing in tools that automate and streamline some of these responsibilities. Many innovative applications are affordable, easy to deploy, and provide a surprisingly rapid return on your technology investment.

For instance, using an advanced pavement management solution can provide robust analytics such as condition analysis, including identifying the cost to preserve existing assets, plus recommending the best mix of treatments to meet the agency’s performance objectives within the available budget. An integrated maintenance management solution can help agencies track labor, equipment, and materials. The less time spent searching through spreadsheets or compiling data from multiple sources, the more time to identify and enable maintenance best practices.

Case in point: The Idaho Transportation Department deployed an automated maintenance and reporting system to improve its winter snowplow operations. With an advanced maintenance management application, the agency was able to achieve material savings of 10%, which translates to approximately $600,000 per year. They reduced operator input time by approximately 7,500 labor hours per year, cut equipment costs through improved efficiencies, and achieved consistent performance of snowplow operators across all highway sections. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)

The infrastructure bill allots funding for technology as well. The bill continues the Public Transportation Innovation program through the Federal Transit Administration to advance innovative public transportation research and development ($37 million in 2022). It also directs the establishment of the Advanced Digital Construction Management Systems grant program. In addition, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Every Day Counts (EDC) program empowers Departments of Transportation to deploy established, yet underutilized innovations designed to make our transportation system more adaptable, sustainable, equitable, and safer for all. Since the inception of EDC, states have capitalized on 20 or more of the 52 innovations promoted through the program, with some states having deployed more than 45.

Take a Proactive Approach: When the need for road maintenance exceeds the organization’s limited budget, the default response is often to focus on repairing the “worst” roads first, or to prioritize complaints from community members about local nuisances such as potholes. However, such a reactive approach leads to unintended consequences: Preventive maintenance activities are neglected, and a larger percentage of roads deteriorate.

As Britt McCurry, P.E., maintenance program manager at Summit Design and Engineering and former maintenance engineer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), noted, a preservation-focused approach saves money in the long run. “Pavement preservation techniques are typically lower cost,” he said, and “provide the right treatment at the right time.” For example, addressing minor cracking with chip seal treatments before potholes appear can significantly extend the life of the pavement while also reducing the need for costly repairs.

Carroll County, Maryland, offers a practical example. By switching from a worst-first to a preservation-focused pavement management practice, the county saved an estimated $71 million in backlog repair costs in less than 10 years.

Basic maintenance strategies might start with identifying existing pavement assets, including their locations and condition, then conducting advanced analysis to determine the optimal mix of projects to keep the entire road network in the best possible condition, given the available budget.

Build Partnerships: To improve maintenance and operations, public entities need to reduce data silos within their own organizations, as well as close communication gaps with the contractors and engineering teams hired to gather data about asset condition and facilitate the necessary repairs.

With help from digital applications, transportation entities can improve transparency by centralizing relevant data. Look to your contractors, for instance, to better facilitate the transfer of 3D data, which helps support the long-term maintenance and operation of assets by providing insight into how the infrastructure is aging over time.

Also, look within your organization. Oftentimes, the design and engineering groups within a transportation organization are relying on 3D models and building information modeling (BIM). These models — essentially, digital twins that are delivered during the construction process — can help enable sustainability and efficiency throughout the operations of these assets and provide predictive intelligence to help eliminate the need for reactive repairs.

More collaborative data sharing provides the essential tools to maintain an asset once it’s complete, enabling owner-operators to operate and maintain assets more easily throughout their lifecycle.

Engage in Peer Exchange: Learn what others are doing. Share best practices. Conferences like those hosted by the American Public Works Association and the National Association of County Engineers are ideal for sharing best practices and new ideas. But now that teleconferencing is the norm, taking even an hour a week or per month to talk with colleagues in other jurisdictions can provide much-needed support and insight to help you implement effective maintenance practices.

State and local agencies are now positioned to take unprecedented actions to improve infrastructure, particularly rural roadways. As we move forward with the task of putting the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds to good use, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revamp our nation’s infrastructure by leveraging both modern technology and the government’s support to ease the adoption of that technology. By doing so, we can deliver world-class infrastructure to provide economic, environmental, and societal benefits for the public. R&B

Magdy Mikhail, Ph.D., P.E., is a nationally recognized pavement management expert. He joined the AgileAssets team as a senior consultant in 2019, and currently serves as a senior manager of Transportation Industry Solutions for the leading global provider of transportation asset lifecycle management software for public and private organizations.

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