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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Focus > January 2001 > Quality, Safety, & Reliability: Maintaining the Highway Infrastructure of the Future
January 2001Publication Number: FHWA-RD-01-060

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Quality, Safety, & Reliability: Maintaining the Highway Infrastructure of the Future

By Vince Schimmoller

With $1 trillion invested in highway and bridge infrastructure nationwide, the United States enjoys the best transportation system in the world. Having built that system and with our expansion days largely behind us, our biggest challenge now in the 21st century is to preserve the quality of our national investment. Key aspects of that vital quality maintenance include:

  • Improving rideability by building smoother pavements.
  • Minimizing delays caused by work zones and making work zones safer for both road workers and the traveling public.
  • Reducing the number of deficient bridges.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is working with our State department of transportation partners to address these key goals on several fronts. Our pavement smoothness initiative, for example, has produced two videotapes, Smoother Pavements: Highways Fit for a King and Smoother Roads Playbook, which detail how to achieve smoother asphalt and concrete pavements, respectively. The videos demonstrate how such techniques as using smoothness clauses in highway contracts; maintaining a continuous, uninterrupted paving process; and more accurately monitoring pavement conditions once the road is in place can have a tremendous impact on the quality of the roads we drive on.

Ultra-smooth pavements bring the added benefit of lasting longer and requiring less maintenance, which means fewer traffic disruptions caused by work zones and less exposure for highway workers to the hazards of traffic. Maintenance operations are also being improved through such varied practices as using temporary road closures to complete road work faster and enhancing public information programs that encourage motorists to use alternate routes during construction. By improving maintenance operations, we can better satisfy our customers, who have told us that they want construction and reconstruction work to be completed in a more timely fashion. Our goal should be to get crews into a work zone, accomplish the work as quickly and efficiently as possible, and then get out and stay out.

In the area of bridges, new materials and construction techniques are being used to build stronger, more durable structures that require fewer repairs. High-performance concrete (HPC), for example, is made using the same basic materials as conventional concrete, but the proportions and curing conditions are engineered to produce concrete mixes that meet the requirements of specific bridge projects. Bridges that are being built with HPC are expected to last twice as long as conventional bridges in certain environments.

Another promising solution that FHWA and State highway agencies are exploring involves using high-performance, nonmetallic materials, known as fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) composites, in bridge construction, repair, and rehabilitation. The composites are typically made of such fibers as glass, aramid, and carbon, as well as polymer resin matrixes. These composite materials are more corrosion resistant than conventional steel. FRP materials are also lightweight and easier to handle and install, resulting in more rapid construction.

Maintaining a high-quality road system in the future will also increasingly involve designing roads that fit their physical setting and preserve scenic, historic, and environmental resources while maintaining safety and mobility. FHWA's efforts to advance this context-sensitive design (CSD) approach include cosponsoring "Thinking Beyond the Pavement," an influential national workshop held in 1998 that led to five State and FHWA Eastern Federal Lands CSD pilot projects. FHWA will also be cosponsoring an upcoming September 2001 workshop on "Context Sensitive Highway Design: Transferring Lessons from Our Collective Experiences."

Recycling highway materials and using byproduct materials are both growing parts of the infrastructure equation. The use of recycled asphalt pavement has become prevalent in many States, and numerous research projects on other forms of pavement recycling are underway.

As FHWA moves forward on these many infrastructure initiatives, one of the keys to success will be our continued partnerships with others in the highway community, including the Transportation Research Board, State departments of transportation, industry, metropolitan planning organizations, and city/local highway agencies. Working together, we can ensure that our $1 trillion investment will continue to pay dividends for decades to come.

Vince Schimmoller is the Deputy Executive Director of FHWA.

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Updated: 04/07/2011

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