MnDOT strategy: Repairing, not replacing, roads for now

ST. PAUL -- Traveling Minnesota's smooth roadways probably will continue to be a comfortable ride, but motorists may experience more bumpy jaunts in coming years.

ST. PAUL -- Traveling Minnesota's smooth roadways probably will continue to be a comfortable ride, but motorists may experience more bumpy jaunts in coming years.

Unlike bridges, which undergo an extensive inspection process -- particularly since the Interstate 35W bridge collapse -- there is no similar program to inspect state roads for structural problems that could pose safety concerns.

However, Minnesota Department of Transportation experts rate the condition of highways annually to determine which roadways need maintenance and how to prioritize proposed construction projects. The latest report shows about two-thirds of state highway pavement in good shape, but road mileage in poor condition probably will increase under current funding estimates.

That does not mean roads are unsafe to travel, MnDOT officials say, but they acknowledge there is not enough money to keep all roads in good or fair condition, and that if a poor stretch of road deteriorates it could become a safety concern.

"I can't think of a road that I would say, 'Boy, that road is unsafe to drive,' " said Dave Janisch, MnDOT's pavement management engineer.


The department's pavement inspection from 2006 that shows so many roads in good condition bodes well for coming years, mostly because they cost less to maintain.

The state agency wants less than 2 percent of busy highways and 3 percent of less-traveled roadways to be rated in poor condition, such as those with patched cracks or ruts. However, the amount of poor-condition pavement generally has increased in recent years, exceeding those targets.

"A smooth road is a safe road, so obviously as a road gets more and more rough, that can become a safety issue," said Pat Weidemann, planning director in MnDOT's Willmar district office.

State engineers use vans equipped with cameras to capture pavement images, which then are reviewed to determine roadway conditions. Local transportation engineers also visually inspect roadways.

Roads cannot be inspected for safety the way bridges are. If a bridge deck suffers a crack or fault, it could fail. But a crack in roadway pavement does not necessarily pose a safety problem, said LevKhazanovich, a pavement specialist with the University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies.

Pavement inspections are not used to determine whether roads are safe, but they are considered when engineers rank construction projects they want to pursue.

"Typically, that's a key element that goes into the process for prioritization," said Lee Berget, transportation engineer in MnDOT's Detroit Lakes office.

Road construction projects fall into three categories: maintenance, safety and new construction. Maintenance projects make up at least60 percent of all construction, and about 80 percent of rural Minnesota projects, said Abby McKenzie, director of MnDOT's Office of Investment Management.


The state's eight regional transportation offices often must choose between keeping a good road in that condition or "to get on those worse roads," McKenzie said, which can cost more.

In the Northland, that could mean providing a temporary improvement, such as patching cracks in the pavement, rather than reconstructing an entire section of roadway.

"We basically put a Band-Aid on an arterial wound, but that's all we can afford now," said John Bray, special assistant to the engineer in MnDOT's Duluth office.

"The needs that we know exist in Northeastern Minnesota far outpace any resources we know are available," Bray added.

Pavement conditions also help determine what projects would be delayed if MnDOT receives less funding than what engineers believe is needed. The agency recently released a statewide list of projects that district engineers would defer if a legislative panel did not allow the agency to spend more after the I-35W bridge collapse.

That list, which included mostly new construction, was scrapped after lawmakers gave MnDOT some extra spending authority. However, the agency did not get all it asked for and says it will draft a new list of projects that could be delayed.

MnDOT officials say they will spend whatever is needed to make sure roads are safe, although they may be less comfortable.

The Transportation Department does a good job maintaining roads with the money it has to spend, said Khazanovich, a civil engineer professor. The university's transportation studies center receives state funding through MnDOT.


If MnDOT's own projections are accurate and the percentage of roads in poor condition increase, "the state will need more money to bring the system back," Khazanovich said.

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