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Curves Ahead

While the states are pavement’s prime movers, Superpave’s success also depends on buy-in from the 40,000 local governments that own and operate roadways, as well as all the myriad contractors, equipment makers and quarries that serve them. “The job of implementation isn’t nearly over,” says Gary Henderson, leader of the Federal Highway Administration’s Superpave technology delivery team. Nor is it cheap: the equipment, training and follow-on studies needed to bring Superpave out of the laboratory and into the field have already cost $150 million-three times more than the original research.

Expense aside, bringing academics, contractors and suppliers together in a common purpose may be the new system’s most vital innovation. Whereas mistrust once reigned in the fractious industry, says Kulash, “the hallmark of Superpave is that it has created a constructive environment.” And that, he believes, should speed the introduction of new technology.

At several centers, engineers continue plotting ways to make road building even less of an art. For instance, at the University of Maryland, a team led by Matt Witczak is creating computer models that, when fed with traffic estimates and raw materials’ performance properties, should accurately predict how many years a pavement will last before rutting or cracking from temperature and fatigue.

However, the future of such projects was thrown into question by the “Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century,” which President Clinton signed into law on June 9. The six-year, $217-billion spending plan increased highway construction spending by nearly 40 percent but gutted funds for federal asphalt research and implementation, re-routing much of the money to the states.

Is the transportation act kryptonite for Superpave? Not likely. Although Superpave doesn’t have as much media glitz as a new medical cure, and may not produce as many millionaires as a Silicon Valley startup, it has the key attribute of any hero that endures-a heart for the people. It’s a solution fit for all 50 states that makes pavement last in Los Angeles or Omaha, in the heat and in the wet, good times or bad. And there’s nothing that Americans like better than a long, straight stretch of blacktop-without cracks.

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