As Dominic Jack drove his tricked-out van down Park Point’s Minnesota Avenue on Wednesday morning, a bank of six cameras, three lasers, an inertial measurement unit and a satellite global positioning system collected reams of data about the road.

The lasers scanned the street’s surface, mapping out bumps, cracks and potholes in intricate detail. Meanwhile, the inertial measurement unit recorded the pitch, roll and yaw of the van as it traveled the mean streets of Duluth. And a device attached to one of the vehicle’s rear wheels fired the bank of cameras every 5 meters, taking in a full-breadth image of the road.

By the time its work is done, the rig will have traveled 444 miles’ worth of city streets, and most in both directions, according to Tony Kadlec, president of GoodPointe Technology.

Duluth has hired the St. Paul-based firm to help it get a better handle on the condition of its streets and to develop a plan on how to manage them going forward.

“We want to make the right fixes at the right time to maximize how long our streets last,” said Cari Pedersen, chief engineer of transportation for the city of Duluth.

The city will pay GoodPointe nearly $115,000 for its services plus about another $16,000 for a software package that the company developed to put together a strategic plan, or what it calls a “pavement management system.” The software already is in use in many other jurisdictions, including the Twin Cities and most of the suburbs that surround it.

St. Louis and Carlton counties also are learning to use this new tool called ICON, short for Infrastructure Consultant.

Kadlec boasts that GoodPointe’s systems have been adopted not only by St. Louis County (the largest county east of the Mississippi) but also by California’s San Bernardino County (the largest county west of the mighty river).  

Much of the digital imaging technology used by GoodPointe was developed by NASA for the space industry, but Kadlec said it provides a valuable view of the road as well as the skies above.

Jack, a driver-technician for Lambda Tech, GoodPointe’s sister company specializing in fieldwork, said the firm learns much from its clients, as well.

“We’re constantly tweaking what we do. Cities tell us what they want, and we develop our technologies to suit their needs,” he said.

GoodPointe and its affiliates now work across the nation and around the globe.

The firm crunches data from the field, analyzes it and scores streets on a 100-point scale called a pavement condition index. The higher a road’s PCI score, the better shape it’s in.

Laser readings also are used to measure the ups and downs of the road and to give it a score on what’s called an international roughness index. The higher a street’s IRI score, the worse a ride it provides for travelers.

The scientific scoring systems should provide Duluth with an objective view of each road’s condition, according to Pedersen.

“We’ll be able to say, ‘This is the number,’ and know that all our streets were measured in the same way,” she said.

In terms of developing a management plan, Kadlec said it’s often tempting for cities to adopt a “worst-first” approach to repairs.

“(But) in the long run, that’s not the most cost-effective way to go,” he cautioned.

Kadlec said cities can stretch their dollars further by investing in streets before they fall into serious disrepair.

“It’s cheaper to maintain a decent road,” he said. “It’s sort of like owning a house. You want to do regular maintenance and make sure you have a good roof overhead, because that’s much more cost-effective than trying to fix a leaky home.”

Unfortunately, Pedersen said the roads that are in the worst shape are the one’s people call to complain about.

“We definitely hear about the tough ones,” she said.

Pedersen said the city will need to develop a strategy that enables it to tackle some of the streets that are in the roughest shape yet set aside enough money to stay on top of maintaining the condition of roads that remain relatively good.

“We may need to educate the public a bit,” she said.

Right now, street maintenance crews are in the throes of their work season. But Pedersen expects the data from GoodPointe along with the software tools staff are learning to use will help Duluth develop better strategies this winter, as plans are laid for 2015.

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