Setting paving priorities starts with the 'Automatic Road Analyzer'

Saturday, October 2, 2010; 8:28 PM

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

University Boulevard in Montgomery County was repaved west of Arcola Avenue, but the greatest need always has been east of Arcola Avenue, which is marred by terrible potholes and terrible patching. I drive that road nearly every day, and my commute is jarring.

Please tell me why funding was not allocated to the greatest need and when the other stretch of University Boulevard will be repaved.

- Louise Erlick,

Silver Spring

The Maryland State Highway Administration's repaving along the western part of University Boulevard was a major improvement for this heavily used commuter route. The work has advanced in sections. In September, paving and striping finished up between Veirs Mill Road and Arcola Avenue, though some work on signals and sidewalks remained, said David Buck, MSHA spokesman.

Resurfacing work on the next section east, between Arcola Avenue and Colesville Road, should begin next spring, when the weather warms up again. Buck said the state knows some sections of the roadway there are in bad shape, so highway officials are hoping they can do some concrete patching before winter.

The next section to the east, between Colesville Road and the Capital Beltway, is a candidate for resurfacing under the capital budget starting in mid-2011.

How does the state figure out its paving priorities? One tool it uses is a specialized vehicle called an Automatic Road Analyzer. It's not fancy-looking on the outside, but the equipment aboard this van can detect cracks, ruts and potholes. When it's out on patrol each year along state roads, it sends a computerized analysis of conditions to state engineers, who also take their own road tours twice a year.

This helps create a list of likely candidates for resurfacing, Buck said. But the list must be matched against the money available in the budget.

The financial considerations include the type of road and the type of pavement that is best suited to its condition, Buck said. Depending on the roadway, the state might choose a pavement that is less costly and could last eight years. Or it might pick a more costly surfacing that could last 12 years.

Other factors, such as overall traffic, truck traffic and the time elapsed since the last paving, enter into the decision-making, Buck said. The cost of asphalt and the cost of a traffic maintenance plan might be higher for two miles of interstate than for double that mileage on a two-lane road, but the planners might choose the interstate for resurfacing if evidence showed a greater need there. In fact, the heavily used interstates and other main highways like Routes 50, 4, 5, 355 and 210 are likely to be resurfaced more often than somewhat less-needy roads.

It sounds logical, but drivers like Erlick can attest that the plan can't keep up with the pounding that roads take from vehicles and our weather. The federal stimulus money made a big difference in the amount of paving that got done this year, but we need to figure out a better long-term system for financing road repairs.

Metro's ghost trains

This traveler was standing on the Metrorail platform at Farragut North, looking up at an electronic sign that said a Red Line train for Glenmont was boarding. But the tracks were vacant.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

WMATA's got real computer problems when their systems start making up phantom trains. I wonder how the automatic braking system can possibly work, given that not all of the trains the system thinks it has actually exist. Are our lives in danger?

- Patrick Stingley,

Silver Spring

No, not from the tardy signs, anyway. Metro says the computer behind the displays on the platforms is picking up the necessary data from the moving trains but there's a delay in getting the information onto the signs.

Passengers have noticed the delays for several weeks. The sign tells them a train is boarding several minutes after the train left. Or it might say a train is three minutes away when it's right there at the platform.

Metro's tech people are working on the problem but so far don't have a fix.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Personal responses are not always possible. To contact Dr. Gridlock: By mail: Write to Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. By e-mail: Onthe Dr. Gridlock blog: dr-gridlock. On Twitter: drgridlock.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company