New Technology May Help Roads Resist Wear and Tear

Most of us spend a lot of time rolling over pavement each day, but very little time thinking about it. For a team of workers at the state Department of Transportation though, it’s their job to consider the intricacies of asphalt. And this week, the state brought experts from across the country and even around the world to Anchorage to look a new ways to extend the life of Alaska’s roads.

Maintaining pavement in Alaska is not easy. 80 percent of the state is covered in permafrost. The weather is extreme. And studded tires are allowed to assault the road surface for half of each year. Mike St. Angelo is the statewide pavement engineer for the Alaska Department of Transportation. He says it all adds up to serious wear and tear.

St. Angelo says studded tires are responsible for a lot of damage. He says most states have outlawed the type of case hardened studs that are still legal in Alaska. And they are simply rough on roads, especially in high traffic areas like Anchorage.

St. Angelo says new technology from Sweden may help resist studded tire wear. It involves applying a very thin, very hard layer of rock aggregate to the top of the road surface. He says the state is always looking for ways to extend the life of the pavement.

It’s called “pavement preservation” and it’s a big focus of the Department of Transportation right now. Mike Coffey is the statewide maintenance and operations chief with the department.

Coffey says focusing on preserving pavement is a philosophy switch that transportation departments around the country are making. He says the old way could be summed up with the phrase “worst is first.” The roads with the most cracks and potholes got priority. Now the department likes to start working on roads as soon as the first cracks start forming.

Overcoming those unique challenges in Alaska is a job these pavement engineers seem to relish. And for Mike St. Angelo the ultimate goal is really a simple one.

And luckily, St. Angelo says the smoothest roads also tend to last the longest.

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Annie Feidt is the Managing Editor for Alaska's Energy Desk, a collaboration between Alaska Public Media in Anchorage, KTOO Public Media in Juneau and KUCB in Unalaska. Her reporting has taken her searching for polar bears on the Chukchi Sea ice, out to remote checkpoints on the Iditarod Trail, and up on the Eklutna Glacier with scientists studying its retreat. Her stories have been heard nationally on NPR and Marketplace. Annie’s career in radio journalism began in 1998 at Minnesota Public Radio, where she produced the regional edition of All Things Considered. She moved to Anchorage in 2004 with her husband, intending to stay in the 49th state just a few years. She has no plans to leave anytime soon. afeidt (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8443 | About Annie