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New pavement technology kicks technicians to the curb

The city of Durham used to rely on a simple approach to identify the roads that needed the most repairs: a technician driving around the city looking out the window.

Now the city has a newfangled approach: high-tech data collection vehicles with software that can paint a detailed map of the bumpiest roads.

Officials showed off the new vans at City Hall on Tuesday and said they would lead to better decisions about which roads to repair and resurface. The black and white vans, accented with yellow and red stripes, belong to Roadway Asset Services (RAS), a company hired by the Public Works Department to find problematic roads. 

“The vans have got newer, brighter cameras that are going to give us better vision,” said RAS President Scot Gordon. “It’s more of an automated system. It’s more repeatable, it’s more reliable, and it takes away some of the personal subjectivity.”

For the next four months, the RAS vans will cruise around neighborhoods collecting data and images for an online database. 

The vans might seem odd prowling through residential streets with a submarine-like antenna, cameras mounted on the front and the back, and multiple “CAUTION” decals. But Gordon said people will hardly notice them.

“The vans basically get out every day and they flow with traffic. They’re not stopping traffic. They’re not closing any roads. People aren’t even going to know they’re there,” he said.

The vans are scheduled to cover 40 to 50 miles of roads each day, collecting three types of data. An antenna camera will take a panoramic shot of a street with sidewalks, gutters, and street signs included. The back cameras will point straight down at the pavement and photograph cracking or weathering. The front cameras are the “profilers” that will record the smoothness of the road. 

After all 1,497 lane miles of city roads have undergone a “pavement evaluation,” RAS analysts will look at the data and give each street a condition rating from 0-100. Once city officials have these numbers sometime next spring, the Public Works Department will use them to figure out the most cost-effective approach for maintenance. The project is being financed by the city’s annual pavement budget of $7 million.

Clint Blackburn, who runs the city’s pavement management program, says officials will likely opt for a preservation model that focuses on routine, preventative maintenance for all roads rather than the more expensive “worst first approach” that would fix the most problematic roads, but do little in the way of overall maintenance.

“We want to keep our good roads in good shape and then slowly work on those other problematic roads as we have money,” Blackburn said.

Durham residents say they’re tired of bumpy roads. The annual Durham City and County Resident Survey showed that 45% of Durhamites were dissatisfied with road maintenance. They ranked it in the top three issues that should receive the most attention from city leaders in the coming years.

Blackburn said the city’s goal is always to keep residents happy, but they might not see results right away.

“In the long term, we get a lot of great results and that’s going to protect us from wear over time, but at first, it’s kind of a shock to residents because it’s hard to see the change immediately.”

The city tries to educate Durhamites about this work through neighborhood meetings, but COVID-19 has made that difficult in the past year. According to Blackburn, hardly anyone attends the virtual meetings.

“Sometimes we get zero people. It’s hard to get the message out,” he said. 

The city last assessed the roads in 2018 when the Public Works Department hired a contractor with similar data collection vehicles to RAS. (The results of that study can be found online in an interactive map in which roads are colored according to their condition rating. The average rating was 69 and slightly more than 25% of streets are highlighted orange, symbolizing poor condition.)

This year’s analysis should get even more accurate figures because of its use of AI algorithms rather than human analysts, officials said. They are part of a pilot program that will assign condition ratings automatically. Before, analysts had to consult a 98 page manual to identify and mark problems in the roads, now all they have to do is press a button. 

Photo above: Durham has contracted with Roadway Asset Services to use its high-tech vans to assess city streets. The vans are equipped with cameras on the front, back and on an antenna. Photo by Nicole Kagan – The 9th Street Journal

Nicole Kagan