Leveraging Pilot Programs to Refine Pavement Innovations in United States

As a licensed civil engineer with over 25+ years of experience in the construction industry, I’ve seen firsthand the challenges agencies face in balancing tight budgets with the need to maintain and upgrade critical infrastructure assets like roads and highways. Pavements make up a significant portion of that infrastructure, and as traffic volumes increase and funding falls behind, agencies struggle to keep pace. However, through the strategic use of pilot programs to test pavement innovations on small scales, agencies can carefully evaluate new materials and methods to refine the most promising ones before broader implementation.

In my time working on pavement projects across the country, I’ve found pilot programs to be one of the most effective techniques for advancing pavement technology while managing risks. In this article, I’ll share key insights on how transportation agencies can leverage pavement pilot programs to refine innovations and deliver better roads for less money.

The Challenges With Traditional Pavement Design Practices

For decades, pavement engineering and design relied heavily on empirical data and observation. Engineers would build test tracks with different materials, traffic patterns, or structural designs, and then monitor their real-world performance over many years. Out of that emerged standard practices, specifications, and analytical techniques that became ingrained in policies, industry standards, and software tools for pavement design.

However, the traditional approach has shortcomings:

  • Costly and time-consuming test tracks lock agencies into long observation periods
  • Limited data from a small number of test sections inhibits exploration
  • Prescriptive specifications impede the adoption of new materials/methods
  • Design policies lag behind rapid advances in vehicles, materials, etc.

These limitations mean that most agencies follow outdated practices, leaving little room to incorporate innovative pavement materials and structural designs that could deliver better performance at lower lifecycle costs. Breaking free requires a new approach.

The Promise of Pavement Pilot Programs

Pilot programs provide a mechanism for transportation agencies to pursue pavement innovation while controlling risks. By testing new pavement materials, mixes, or structural designs on a small scale first, agencies can evaluate viability and refine details before considering broader implementation.

Well-designed pavement pilot programs give agencies the flexibility to experiment, collect performance data in real-world conditions faster, and adjust designs and materials to optimize them. Constructing pilot test sections first allows for crucial fine-tuning based on initial performance results, without disrupting critical infrastructure.

Unlike academic settings or scientific models, data from real-world pilots provides tangible evidence for decision-makers and industry partners to get comfortable with innovative changes to established norms.

As an added benefit, pilot programs built as demonstrational prototypes can also serve an educational purpose for both transportation professionals and the general public. Seeing firsthand how new pavement solutions perform builds confidence and willingness to support broader adoption.

Key Factors for Success

In my career, I’ve observed a wide range of pavement pilot efforts, both successful and not-so-successful. From that experience, I’ve identified several key factors that set up pilots for meaningful results and impact.

Secure Adequate Funding & Resources

Like any major initiative, pavement pilot programs require funding and access to necessary staffing resources, data collection tools, testing facilities, and industry partnerships. Without dedicated funding and staff to plan, construct, monitor, evaluate, and promote the pilot, results end up limited. I’ve seen great innovative ideas languish due to resource constraints.

A well-conceived budget also builds legitimacy with both agency leadership and external partners by demonstrating a commitment to robust evaluation.

Involve a Diverse Cross-Functional Team

No single discipline has all the needed expertise to effectively design and deliver pilot pavement projects. These efforts benefit immensely from diverse teams encompassing materials experts, pavement designers, construction specialists, data analysts, evaluators, communicators, and even social scientists.

Cross-pollination from different fields surfaces challenges and insights that unidisciplinary viewpoints easily overlook. Different lenses clarify where real needs exist, how to construct tests properly, what data deserves collection, how innovations can integrate with other processes, what objections might arise, and how to address them.

Collaboration across agency siloes also breaks institutional barriers to change while building wider acceptance for successful approaches with peer validation.

Choose Sites Deliberately

Site selection heavily influences the interpretation of pavement pilot results, since surrounding environmental and traffic conditions directly impact performance. Sites should match as closely as possible to the intended context for broader implementation.

Failing to replicate those future real-world conditions limits the ability to extrapolate how the designs and materials will function long-term across the network. For example, testing an asphalt mix targeted for high-volume urban interstates by piloting it on a low-volume rural road inevitably triggers debate regarding the accuracy of predicting ultimate viability.

When launching multiple pilot sites is infeasible, intensified data collection on a smaller-scale pilot site adds to the confidence in evaluating innovative treatments.

Quantity Calculation In The Project Site

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Embrace Iterative Refinement

Rarely does even the most promising pavement innovation emerge perfectly optimized out of initial testing. The true benefit of controlled small-scale pilots lies in observing early results, identifying adjustment needs, tweaking the designs or materials accordingly, and then retesting until refined sufficiently for scaling up.

Build pilot timelines allowing for this iterative process while tracking changes made with each round along with the underlying rationale. Continual refinement and performance verification in the pilot phase ensure higher success in translating to broader network implementation.

Communicate & Promote Results

Finally, pavement pilot programs should incorporate deliberate plans to communicate findings and promote successes through technical documentation as well as public-friendly messaging. Traveling demonstrations also give influential audiences a direct experience.

Outreach should target both peer transportation agencies to enable broader adoption as well as policymakers’ control funding levels. For major advances with compelling results, work directly with relevant industry organizations to support adjusting standards and specifications to incorporate the innovation.

Showcasing local examples of pavement innovation pilot successes goes a long way in building confidence and appetite for change among otherwise conservative institutions and professionals.

Notable Pavement Innovation Pilot Programs

Many transportation agencies across the United States have executed pavement pilot programs adhering to the principles and strategic elements detailed above. Here are a few examples with outcomes and lessons that can guide similar efforts elsewhere:

California DOT I-5 Enhanced Durability Asphalt Concrete Pilot

Problem Targeted: Premature cracking & fatigue failure in asphalt pavements

Innovative Solution: Stone matrix asphalt (SMA) mixed with polymer-modified binder, fiber additives, and digestible strips to resist top-down & reflective cracking

Pilot Approach: $5M to construct 7 miles along Interstate 5 covering a variety of site conditions from heavy traffic to environmental surroundings

Outcomes: After 5 years, pilot sections outperformed standard Caltrans asphalt mix by 250% in average lifespan proving the viability of innovations to now expand as a new statewide standard mix for similar context interstates.

Michigan DOT Perpetual Pavement Pilot

Problem Targeted: Reducing lifecycle costs through long-lasting perpetual pavement designs

Innovative Solution: Full-depth asphalt over concrete base layer designed for 40+ year life with periodic resurfacing rather than full reconstruction

Pilot Approach: Three test sites covering low, medium, and high traffic volumes constructed in 2019-2023 with embedded sensors and testing labs

Outcomes: As of 2024, pilot pavements have met performance targets confirming the viability of perpetual pavement approaches; insights now evolving formal design standards advancing use elsewhere in suitable applications.

Virginia DOT Warm Mix Asphalt Pilot

Problem Targeted: Improving asphalt pavement sustainability through reduced energy consumption and emissions in production

Innovative Solution: Warm mix asphalt enabling 30-100°F lower production temperatures than conventional hot mix while maintaining strength

Pilot Approach: Multi-year $2M+ pilot initiative across 8 pavement test sections to evaluate 3 warm mix technologies for viability

Outcomes: Results affirmed energy & emissions reductions exceeding 50% in warm mix production while pavement lifetime met or exceeded conventional mix performance expectations following refinement of processes with longitudinal testing data.

Keys to Advance Pavement Innovation

As transportation agencies across the United States grapple with the challenge of maintaining pavements in good condition despite growing traffic volumes and limited budgets, pilot programs offer a valuable mechanism for the controlled evaluation of innovative materials and structural designs. When executed effectively, pavement pilots pave the way for modern advances to replace outdated practices enshrined in policy manuals.

However, pilot projects require significant commitment, funding, multi-disciplinary staff resources, data collection, and communication campaigns to generate meaningful advancement. Those costs should be weighed against the long-term savings and performance benefits unlocked from proven innovations as part of the decision process.

With strategic pavement pilots and iterative refinement converting concepts into demonstrated solutions, agencies gain confidence to incorporate changes into standards, specifications, and design policies. Maintaining that support for regular programs targeted at advancing pavement technology will ensure infrastructure keeps pace with emerging vehicles and modern mobility patterns for generations to come.

So as long-held pavement management conventions come under increasing strain, pilot efforts to validate transformative alternatives can drive key breakthroughs while keeping risk contained. By leveraging both internally produced data through experimentation as well as fast-expanding external research, transportation agencies hold the power to deliver on public expectations for smooth, safe, and sustainable roadways far into the future.

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I'm Steve Axton, a dedicated Asphalt Construction Manager with over 25 years of experience paving the future of infrastructure. My journey with asphalt began by studying civil engineering and learning about core pavement materials like aggregate, binder and additives that compose this durable and versatile substance. I gained hands-on experience with production processes including refining, mixing and transporting during my internships, which opened my eyes to real-world uses on roads, driveways and parking lots. Over the past decades, I have deepened my expertise in asphalt properties like viscosity, permeability and testing procedures like Marshall stability and abrasion. My time with respected construction companies has honed my skills in paving techniques like milling, compaction and curing as well as maintenance activities like crack filling, resurfacing and recycling methods. I'm grateful for the knowledge I've gained about standards from Superpave to sustainability best practices that balance longevity, cost and environmental friendliness. It's been an incredibly rewarding career working with this complex material to build the infrastructure future.

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