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March 30, 2021Episode 5. Good News, Bad News. A better grade for America’s infrastructure, but still no bragging rights.
FEATURING: Charles Gurganus, Edith Arámbula Mercado
American roads and bridges get us to where we live, learn, work, shop, and play. And that network has needed repair for a while, now. TTI experts Edith Arámbula Mercado and Charles Gurganus explain how maintaining the nation’s infrastructure is a lot like taking care of our own homes. The longer we postpone necessary upkeep, the higher the cost will be.
About Our Guests
Associate Research Engineer
Charles Gurganus has over 17 years of experience in the transportation industry. He spent 10 years with the Texas Department of Transportation before coming to TTI. He considers himself a generalist in transportation infrastructure engineering and enjoys working on projects for a diverse group of public and private sponsors.
Edith Arámbula Mercado
With expertise in pavement performance evaluation, material characterization, and data analysis, Edith Arámbula Mercado currently manages TTI’s Recycled Pavement Materials Program. She’s collaborated on multiple research projects related to various materials and pavements technologies and applications, including aggregate characteristics, recycled materials and full-depth reclamation. Edith’s research has formed the basis for state and national standards related to design, construction, and maintenance of asphalt pavements.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Hello again. This is Thinking Transportation, a podcast about how we get ourselves and our stuff from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Bernie Fette (00:29):
It’s easy to understand why we wouldn’t think very much about the condition of our streets and highways. When they’re in good shape, they look and feel like they’d last forever. But a lot of what we drive on every day is decades old and it’s wearing out. So every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers hands out its infrastructure report card, using the same letter grades we remember from our days in school. That report card is the topic of this episode of Thinking Transportation. And I’m here with two of TTI’s infrastructure experts who can help us understand why America’s roads, bridges and other public works are struggling to make the grade. Edith Arámbula Mercado is a research engineer and Charles Gurganus is an associate research engineer with the Institute. Thank you both for being with us today.
Edith Arámbula Mercado (guest) (01:27):
Charles Gurganus (guest) (01:27):
Bernie Fette (01:27):
So, America’s infrastructure earned a C-minus this time around, which is certainly better than the last performance of a D-plus, but still not all that much to brag about. I’m a little curious– when the two of you were in graduate school, what would have happened if your grades looked anything like these grades?
Edith Arámbula Mercado (01:47):
Well, definitely it wouldn’t be good; graduate school or elementary school, any grade level. I think ASCE does a great job putting the grades in this format because I think it’s very relatable, right? Everybody has gone through school and understands what is C-plus or a D. I think it shows that there are some deficiencies, of course, in general, in several areas of infrastructure. But as you said, you know, the trend is positive. And I think that’s a good thing for us engineers.
Charles Gurganus (02:21):
So, I’ve tried to block out graduate school and just move past that phase in my life; but I have two children in school, and so I can speak to what their life would be like if they brought home Ds and Cs, and it certainly would not be pleasant for them. But then again, we have moved from D to C. So now at least we’re passing, we’re moving in the right direction. I do like the way ASCE does it as well, because it does create this perspective where you really do kind of understand this A-through-F category. And it is worth kind of understanding too, that when you look at C in the ASCE grade scale, it does talk about that, actually, most of the network is in fair to good condition. So you actually do kind of have to think about it from a perspective when you read through the report, understanding that A and B really sets us up for the future and C kind of is keeping us sustained right now. So I think that’s where we are right now, but certainly just like with my kids, the expectation of bringing home As and Bs is definitely there. And we’d like to see ourselves moving in that direction.
Bernie Fette (03:19):
Yeah. And I noticed that out of all the transportation-related categories, aviation and ports moved up, but most of the others are still stuck in that D range. And even though the trend is somewhat positive, they’re stuck in that range. How do we change that?
Edith Arámbula Mercado (03:38):
Well, that’s a tough question, because I think you need some sort of vision first. Like where do you want to be? And then from there, of course you will need some sort of investment that would translate into a better performing network. I mean, that’s the way I see it, but sometimes we’re–as an industry–we’re more like a reactive industry rather than a proactive one. But I believe that if there’s a vision and there are the resources to get to that place, eventually we will get out from the D range and do better letters in that grading system.
Charles Gurganus (04:14):
To piggyback off of what Edith said there, vision has existed for our roadway infrastructure in the past, right? I mean, we see what we’ve done in this country in terms of building the interstate system; that was a huge visionary process that led that to where we are today. But the challenge with that really, especially for the roadway side of things (which is still in that D range), is that our roadways are a lot older. We talk about the interstates and when they were built in the 50s and 60s, and then you look at a state like Texas, and you talk about, say the farm-to-market system, which was built in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. So this is a very old system, where the demands have done nothing but go up. And the people that use that system, it’s still expected to serve at a very high level. And so there’s a lot of demands from an industry perspective on how we achieve the expectations of our users with a system that’s just getting older and older and older. It’s just like owning an older house. You know, the demands with keeping that house up and keeping up with the standard of living in 2021 requires an investment in that to make sure you bring it to the point that makes it comfortable for you. That’s the expectation of the roadway user.
Bernie Fette (05:23):
And you mentioned, you know, that farm-to-market system, for instance, and what the industry demands are. Those have only gotten bigger for, for instance, with the energy industry, we’re simply making greater and greater demands on a system that was, was built, perhaps not to deliver in the same way that we’re expecting today.
Edith Arámbula Mercado (05:45):
Yes, that is correct. So, demands are ever increasing. As Charles was mentioning, the infrastructure is getting older. So I think that kind of ties back to the investment. And I think a little bit that ties also to our role as researchers, right? Because we at the end want to produce standards and codes that will make those roads up to the standard that we need them to be up to the service that they need to be based on current demands.
Charles Gurganus (06:13):
Yeah, I think that’s right. And you actually see it in the report card as well, where you see that our interstate system is functioning at a very high level. Whereas the rural system–to your point, Bernie–has been very taxed and has been loaded beyond what people ever envisioned. The energy sector is a great example, both in Texas and in Pennsylvania and in the Dakotas, where it’s just been really asked to do more than we ever thought it would be asked to do. And it’s not as though you can just run out there and pull a barricade across it and say, “Oh no, we didn’t ask this roadway to do this, so you can’t drive on it.” No, we still expect it to perform at the level that it needs to perform to move people and goods. And so that’s, that’s why it’s challenging. And that’s why it’s difficult to get the roadway network, improve that grade, and why it does create a large investment in how we have to talk about that.
Bernie Fette (07:04):
Important point. We don’t allow our roadways to retire. We just keep asking more and more of them. In the ASCE announcement, there was a lot of mention of “build back better.” And I know that that was at least in part a political campaign, but from an engineering standpoint, what exactly does that mean? And does it also have anything to do with all of the mentions of the word “resilient” in their announcement?
Edith Arámbula Mercado (07:29):
Yes, I believe it does. As far as my understanding goes, this was a concept that was introduced back maybe in 2015, by the United Nations. So they were framing this concept of like, if you have a natural disaster or some manmade disaster and you need to rebuild a certain part of your infrastructure, then when you build it back, make it better–meaning more resilient, longer lasting with better materials. So I believe that’s the concept that ties into this infrastructure report card and applies to roadways. What you want to do is if you have a flood event, for example, can you get back the road into service without compromising its structural capacity; for example, and in general to infrastructure, like if you have to rebuild something, you’re going to maintain something, you’re going to rehabilitate some structure or part of your infrastructure, make it better, make it thinking about the future and conditions it can experience moving forward.
Bernie Fette (08:31):
Yeah. How about you Charles?
Charles Gurganus (08:35):
Yeah, I think Edith hit the nail on the head with that right there. That’s the expectation of us moving forward. So I think of resiliency, I think of Rocky IV. And I think of when Rocky is fighting Drago at the end and he just keeps getting pounded. I’ve never seen a boxing match like that in real life, but he just keeps coming back and coming back after withstanding something that nobody should be able to physically withstand. So to Edith’s point, I think that’s exactly what we want out of resiliency. Can our infrastructure take a pounding and come back quickly and come back better? And that’s where us as researchers really try to, to fill the gap. And a lot of what we have to do is understand the weaknesses in our current system before we can really even talk about how do we make the system more resilient. We have to understand where we’re weak and there’s a lot of research going on across the country and identifying that so that we can improve the current network. And once we figure that out, it’ll be a lot easier to figure out how we build new things more resilient.
Bernie Fette (09:29):
Charles Gurganus (09:29):
It certainly plays a role in what our roadways and our infrastructure will see from a climate standpoint. But then also like we just talked about from an economy standpoint. What is the next shale play out there that is going to tax our roadway system, that’s going to load our system? And so when we think about how we’re going to rehabilitate the network, because we often live in that environment; it’s really a rehabilitation focus, not necessarily a brand new construction focus. So how do we make sure we improve our product? Because our product is roadway, industry folks, is the roadway. So how do we improve that product when we build it back? What are the new materials that we can use? What are the new design standards that we can use? So how can we upgrade it so that it doesn’t just meet current demands, but it’s going to meet future demands and hopefully exceed that in a lot of cases.
Bernie Fette (10:23):
Okay, speaking of new materials, there’s also older materials, I think, in the picture. Edith, your specialization is in, or one of those specializations is in the recycling for our roadway system. What Charles mentioned about rehabilitation and everything else having to do with rebuilding. How does recycling fit into the mix?
Edith Arámbula Mercado (10:47):
That’s a very good question. I think there’s a big push to include recycling, in general, in roadways–that being an old pavement becoming part of the new pavement, or even other byproducts like roof shingles, plastics, a lot of different materials. So of course, there’s a lot of benefits to that, because you’re saving money. You’re using less natural resources. You’re, you know, diminishing your emissions in the process of the construction. However, there needs to be some sort of word of caution maybe in terms of you don’t want your highway to eventually become like a linear landfill, right? And just put anything that comes about–you don’t know what to do with, oh, let’s put it on the roadway. Because it’s a big industry. It’s a lot of tonnage. So you can use a lot of whatever product you have available. However, you need to think again, in the future, what’s going to happen when that road is at the end of its service life? If you put plastic in it, for example, how are you gonna reuse that material? Is it going to be reusable at all? What is going to be the cost of bringing that back and make it new, quote/unquote, “new or usable” in a second recycling phase? So those are things that not because now, okay, we have a plastic problem. Let’s put all the plastic we can in roadways; that’s going to be a solution, I don’t know, 10-12 years down the road. So those are just some things to consider. Yes, recycling is good, but also it needs to be done with certain perspective and practices that are sustainable in the long term.
Bernie Fette (12:24):
Because you’re trying to keep in mind the environmental considerations, what I hear you saying, but ultimately you have to–and departments of transportation who employ recycling in their strategies, ultimately they have to–deliver a roadway that works, that is durable, that serves its intended purpose, regardless of what the contents of that roadway are, right?
Edith Arámbula Mercado (12:51):
Correct. For the end-user, there should be no difference, right? If I’m riding on it, I want it to be smooth. I want it to be quiet. I want to have good skid resistance. So all those things for the end-users should be the same, regardless of what components went into producing that mixture. So that’s the challenge for us engineers. We need to deliver a product that will have the same level of service to the end-user. And at the same time, have, you know, this green or sustainable component to it, especially when you incorporate materials that are not traditionally used in the asphalt mixture production.
Bernie Fette (13:30):
And an approach that makes economic sense too, right?
Edith Arámbula Mercado (13:33):
As well. Yes, correct.
Bernie Fette (13:34):
Speaking of which, we know that transportation infrastructure investment is not cheap, but what’s the cost of not making that investment? What’s the cost of doing nothing?
Charles Gurganus (13:45):
Well, the cost of doing nothing is the same as the cost of doing nothing if you own your own home. You will eventually wake up one day and, worst-case scenario, your home becomes uninhabitable. The same is true for our infrastructure network system. If we just let it ride, one day we will wake up and it will be completely broken and it will fail us. And it simply won’t be usable in that moment. It doesn’t mean just like your home, that you can’t rebuild it, but the cost to rebuild at that point will be astronomical. And so it would become prohibitive to get anywhere near the infrastructure system, particularly the roadway system that we have today. So the investment is real because in–and Texas actually does a phenomenal job of this in terms of doing preventative maintenance on roadways that are already in good condition–why? Because if you work on good roads, they stay good. And so that’s, this preventative maintenance funding is very necessary to maintaining the expectation of the user.
Edith Arámbula Mercado (14:46):
Correct. And I think the analogy to having a house or having a car–you know, you wouldn’t just use your car forever and ever, and never take it for an oil change or change your tires. Why? Because if you just let it be used and not put any maintenance on it, it would eventually degrade to a point that, as Charles was saying, is either not usable anymore, or to bring it back to an acceptable level, you will need to devote a lot of money, a lot of capital investment of a significant amount, versus having a small periodic maintenance done.
Bernie Fette (15:21):
Using the analogy of a house is, I think–that’s really helpful for most of us. And if you take that a step further with our recent experience with water, for instance, during the big winter storm, if we woke up one day and we’re having a problem with our water supply–we turn a faucet and we know instantly there is a problem. And it’s a big problem. We don’t necessarily have that same immediate warning with our roads and bridges. That’s something that happens a lot more slowly. And whenever we have public policy issues like health care and education, there’s, there’s a feeling of urgency with many people, so they can dominate policy discussions. We don’t tend to think of infrastructure as an urgent concern sometimes until a bridge falls into a river. Is there a way to change that mindset?
Edith Arámbula Mercado (16:14):
Well, I do believe it’s true. I think roads in general are something that is taken for granted, right? When you’re gonna go to your office or go on a road trip, the last thing you think about is, is there going to be a road that takes me from point A to B and is it going to be in good condition? Is it going to be open? So I do believe this is part of the problem that, in general, there’s a good system out there that people can use. However, I believe the user needs to think that at the end of the day, any congestion, any service that needs to be done on a road is cost to them. Like if you’re stuck on a road, that’s time you’re losing. If you can only use one lane out of three lanes are available or on a highway, and that delays you, that is also a cost for you. So maybe changing, a little bit, the mindset can play a role in making roadways a little bit more prominent in terms of investment and regarding condition. Yes, it is true that, in general, roads deteriorate at a slower rate, but there’s this whole asset management. And, you know, Charles, who’s the expert on this, that every year, you know, the departments of transportation go out and evaluate the conditions of the roads and they create these curves; deterioration curves that can tell them, “how is the road doing, how long it has before they deteriorate to a level that is going to be no longer acceptable.” So I think even though it is lower, you still have a sense of how much time you have before you need to do something to the road.
Bernie Fette (17:48):
Is there a way, Charles, that you can explain that for those of us who are not engineers, how that works, what you’re doing?
Charles Gurganus (17:55):
Sure. I’ll do my best. I’ll start by trying to kind of frame the discussion. You asked, why does infrastructure funding not receive the same type of publicity, say as health care or schools or something like that. And I guess I’ll date myself a little bit here and say because it doesn’t make a good front page headline. You know, you talk about schools and kids, you talk about health care and things like that; it makes good front-page news. And in fact, even as a materials and pavements engineer, I actually experienced that on the transportation side of things. The congestion guys, right? You show a front page picture of a whole bunch of lanes full of traffic, and it makes a good front-page story, but you start talking about asset management and condition curves and things like that–nobody wants to see that on the front page of the newspaper. But … but what we’re really saying is that, hey, if I use something over and over again, maybe it’s like my lawn mower. I use my lawn mower over and over again. And I know that it dulls my blades. Well after one cutting season, do I need to sharpen my blades? Probably not. But maybe after the second cutting season, I want to sharpen my blades so that in that third cutting season, the year after, the way I cut my lawn looks just like it did the first year I cut my lawn. And then you cut it, and then you might go another two seasons and then sharpen them again. But if you get lucky and your lawn mower lasts you a decade, somewhere in there, you’re actually going to have to buy new blades. And so that’s what we mean by these deterioration curves. We like to do this preventative maintenance, like sharpening our blades. We bring our infrastructure back up to a good level. We use it. We re-sharpen our blades. We bring it back up to a good level. But then maybe we’ve sharpened so much metal off of those blades, that, that next time we’ve got to do a little bit more costly repair to it, to get it back up to the point that we expect it to, for it to cut our lawn. So that’s kind of what we do on the asset management approach in this deterioration curve mentality.
Bernie Fette (20:01):
That’s great. The non-engineers among us really appreciate a good analogy. So thanks for that. Trying to remember the conversation with Greg recently–our director had referred to the transportation network as the circulatory system of our economy, of our American way of life. Does that resonate for you?
Charles Gurganus (20:23):
Well, yeah, certainly because, I mean, you think about the amount of commerce that travels over our transportation system, because it’s not just about getting goods, to our brick and mortar, especially not now. Now it’s also about getting goods directly to your door in the world of Amazon and internet ordering, but it’s not just that. Commerce is you. It’s about getting you from your house to your office or from your house to the grocery store where you play a role in the overall economy. So it’s about moving people. It’s about moving goods. And without it, what do we do? What does that even look like? Because I think we see even with the COVID pandemic–where people went largely to internet ordering and delivering to move these goods–how did it get there? It’s still got there on our transportation system. It is absolutely vital for a growing economy and to maintain the standard of living that we’ve created in this country.
Edith Arámbula Mercado (21:23):
That is very true. We just had the cold spell here in Texas in the middle of February. And I think it just gave us a snapshot of what can happen when roads are not usable. You know, people were scrambling to get to grocery stores and were anxious to get their deliveries done. So it’s just like, sort of like in a scenario, what could happen if we didn’t have this road system usable?
Bernie Fette (21:50):
The future of transportation often focuses on glamorous visions, like delivery drones and self-driving cars. How do we continue to keep our eye on the unglamorous things like concrete and asphalt?
Edith Arámbula Mercado (22:06):
Well, that’s a very good question. I think concrete and asphalt are like the hardware to a software, right? So, yes. you have nice apps on your phone or your computer, but you still need the computer. So you can talk about, you know, self-driving cars or sensors or all these things, but still you would need that physical space where things are going to move. And that at the end of the day are the roads that we’ll need to travel. Those are my two cents.
Charles Gurganus (22:38):
So piggybacking on your hardware-software analogy there, Edith, we have lived in a virtual world for the last year, but there is a real world that still very much exists, and we all know it every day and that real world requires real transportation. And so we do have to have this roadway network moving forward. How do we keep materials engineering in the forefront of roadway engineering? I will say that would be the one thing I took exception with in the ASCE report, was they noted in there that they did not believe that materials engineering and innovation had kept pace with innovation in, say, the bridge sector. And I took exception to that probably because I’m a materials and pavements engineer at a research Institute, but I think it goes back to the point you were making earlier, Bernie, which sometimes materials and pavements just isn’t that attractive on the front page of the newspaper. And so we forget what folks like Edith are doing in terms of looking at different materials that can be used for recycling, or folks like Tom Scullion, that do so much stabilization of our materials or, Dr. Fujie Zhou, who is making new cracking tests. We really are pushing the envelope in terms of materials engineering. The problem is that’s really engi-nerdy. And so a lot of times we don’t do a real good job of telling our story and making people realize how this really does improve their quality and improve the transportation system. And so I’ll be honest with you. I think it’s a little bit of a PR issue. I think we’ve got to get out of our box a little bit as engineers and we’ve got to, we’ve got to become sales folks and we’ve got to sell what we do and how important it is. Because it is the circulatory system. It is absolutely vital to making the whole thing go. Without it, nothing’s going to go anywhere.
Bernie Fette (24:26):
You have a story to tell. You just need to find the right way to tell it.
Charles Gurganus (24:31):
Bernie Fette (24:31):
Last thing. Why are you guys doing this? What motivates you?
Edith Arámbula Mercado (24:37):
The million dollar question. (Laughs).
Charles Gurganus (24:40):
You make a million dollars?! (Laughs).
Edith Arámbula Mercado (24:44):
I think it’s just curiosity and the need to solve problems, really. I mean, it just happens that we’re in this area of engineering, but I just feel when I don’t know if it’s how you’re raised up or natural abilities, I’m not sure; but like you are, if you’re a curious person and you like to solve problems, I think this is what motivates you to do stuff like we do like research and come up with solutions and try to improve certain practices.
Charles Gurganus (25:17):
I like it because it does require solving problems and it requires critical-thinking skills. In particular, I like highway and roadway engineering because we don’t work in a machine shop. We don’t fine tune everything to the micron. We do a lot of engineering and a lot of scientific work, and we learn as much as we can about the product. But at the end of the day, that road is going to be constructed by a motor grader with a 12- or 14-foot mow board. We’re going to lay hot mix out of a paving machine that has a 10-foot extendable screen. So it’s fun to work on the engineering side and understand a lot about it and then figure out how you’re going to put it together in the real world. That constructability aspect is what kind of excites me about this field. That’s why I’m here.
Bernie Fette (26:07):
Well, it shows and it’s, it’s great that you can make engi-nerdy cool.
Charles Gurganus (26:11):
I don’t know about that. You’d have to talk to my wife. She would just call me a nerd.
Bernie Fette (26:17):
Edith Arámbula Mercado (26:17):
Or your kids, for that matter. (Laughs).
Charles Gurganus (26:21):
I’ve got a 15 year old. I won’t be cool for him for years.
Bernie Fette (26:24):
This is great. Thank you both. This has been fun, in addition to being productive. Notice, I mentioned fun first.
Edith Arámbula Mercado (26:33):
Thank you, guys.
Charles Gurganus (26:34):
Thanks for the invitation guys. It was like, yeah, I had fun as well.
Edith Arámbula Mercado (26:37):
Bernie Fette (26:41):
Some of us might remember a TV advertisement from the 1970s in which the tagline was, “you can pay me now or pay me later.” It was a commercial for car maintenance, but the admonition applies to the upkeep of our nation’s infrastructure, too. With expert planning and engineering and the durability that naturally comes with concrete and steel, our roads and bridges were built to last. They just weren’t built to last forever.
Bernie Fette (27:10):
Thank you for listening to Thinking Transportation. We hope you’ll subscribe and share, and we hope you’ll check in with us next time, when we talk with Russell Henk about the progress toward making driving safer for novice drivers and all the work that still remains on that front.
Bernie Fette (27:29):
Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host Bernie Fette. Thanks again. We’ll see you next time.