Is There A Cheaper, Better Way To Fix Our Roads?

How thin overlay mixtures are closing potholes and opening roads in Central Texas.

July 27, 2015 8:47 am|

Recent heavy rains in Texas have damaged their fair share of homes, cars and crops. And they haven’t made the pothole situation in Dallas any easier.

The Dallas Morning News reported this month that nearly a quarter of Dallas’ 11,000 miles of roads are in dire need of repair. Citizens have been requesting compensation for vehicle damage from potholes on Dallas roads. The city’s response? They’ve rejected all but a fraction of them.

Around Central Texas politicians say there’s just not enough money to go around to take care of all the potholes that need filling right now.

But Mike Arellano, a pavement engineer with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), says maybe we’ve been looking at the pothole problem all wrong.

Arellano has become something of an evangelist for a new approach to potholes.

“Traditionally, we used to rehab the surface of the pavement,” Arellano says. “The traffic has been growing and our congestion has been growing also, so these traditional materials just haven’t stood up to the new demands.”

So if just rehabbing the surface of the pavement doesn’t work, what does? Arellano says to look at thin asphalt overlay surfaces.

“It’s kind of counter-intuitive when you think about going thinner,” Arellano says. “But actually what we’re trying to do is engineer higher quality materials that can actually withstand these new loads and these new volumes of congestion.”

TxDOT started using this method of repairing roads seven to eight years ago in the Austin metropolitan area. Arellano says thin overlays are not only higher quality, but cheaper. And that makes them an attractive option for lawmakers who have budgets they need to balance. “It’s kind of gone viral now in the state,” he says. “People are really starting to implement this type of technology to really stretch their funds and still maintain a high level of service.”

Thin overlay roads also have some technological improvements that weren’t available in years past. “We’ve actually designed it to where the texture, where the rubber, literally meets the road, [and] has better traction than we had in the past,” he says. “It’s safer and it’s also a lot quieter than what we used to have.”

Arellano says so far, the roads in Austin that have been repaired with thin overlays are doing just fine. “We have an independent company rate the condition of our roads annually and they count cracks… ruts… potholes… failures,” he says.

“When you look at the conditions of Central Texas — or the Austin district — our condition scores have actually gone up in the last four to five years,” Arellano says. “Especially relative to the rest of the state. And thin overlays have been one tool that we’ve used to get those results.”

The hope is that commutes across the state will be smoother as cities outside of Austin — Dallas, for instance — adopt more technologies like thin overlays.