Rocky roads

UofSC researchers looking for ways to improve South Carolina roads

Ask South Carolina drivers about the state’s roadways and they’ll probably tell you that they need … work. And that would be putting it mildly. Population growth and new home building in suburban areas means more daily traffic on roads that are, quite literally, crumbling. The condition of our roads also is an issue that has been heating up through debate in the Statehouse.

Fortunately, civil engineering experts from the University of South Carolina’s College of Engineering and Computing, and Clemson University, are working on the problem. The research team will receive $1.76 million in funding from the state Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration to collect new data on South Carolina roadways over the next four years. The research will determine how roads can better be constructed, fixed and maintained so that new pavement lasts longer.

“We are determined to help fix South Carolina’s roads,” said civil engineering professor Sarah Gassman. “To do this, we’re collecting and analyzing data on traffic volume and other wear factors while also looking at new materials that are available for road construction.”

The pavement design method currently used by the state transportation department is based on updates to an original 1961 procedure and South Carolina-specific local studies conducted at Carolina and Clemson from 1964 to 1973. Average truck weight and traffic volume is much higher than it was decades ago. In addition, there are additives for concrete and asphalt that either weren’t used or weren’t available in the 1960s-70s.

Completed last year, the first phase was for researchers to examine the preliminary data that the transportation department already had on climate, soil, asphalt and traffic data conditions — all of which affect road construction and maintenance in the state.

With the initial phase done, researchers have moved on to the more time-consuming part of the project: collecting data that the transportation department doesn’t have. To get that data, the team will undertake the following and more:

  • Field research to collect new soil, concrete and asphalt data, which involves getting core samples of pavement and analyzing these in the lab to get mechanical properties of the material used in road construction.
  • Installing sensors in key current and future pavement sections in the state to observe cracking, rutting and other impacts.

Analysis of the collected data will make forecasts of various distresses over the life of the pavement. The program will also be calibrated using a national database of pavement performance, and the data will be fed into a state-of-the-art national computer model calibrated for South Carolina conditions. This procedure will enable engineers to decide if the pavement performance meets standards or needs improvement.

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