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A Do-It-Now Approach to Getting Roads Fixed

Milwaukee's program focuses on quick, cost-effective improvements that give its streets years more service.

Roads in a neighborhood being paved.
Citizens become frustrated with government when they are unable to receive assistance or service improvements in a timely manner. In addressing its roadway maintenance concerns, the city of Milwaukee has taken a focused approach to combating this frustration: Let's fix what we can and do it as fast as we can.

With most state transportation funds allocated toward major reconstruction projects that can take months, if not years, few dollars are left for improvements to existing roadway infrastructure. So Milwaukee has chosen to make small, quick improvements until full, longer-term repairs can be made. Armed with a plan from the public works department, in 2012 Mayor Tom Barrett launched the High Impact Paving Program to deliver short-term, cost-effective paving projects for both major city highways and local streets.

Typically these types of projects can take months, but the program completes them in two to four days -- often within 24 hours. "Under this program streets are carefully selected, Public Works hires private contractors to grind the existing surface, place a two-inch layer of asphalt, install plastic pavement markings and often introduce new bike lanes," said Ghassan Korban, Milwaukee's commissioner of public works.

The approach is not new, but the paving program offers a quick turnaround fix that allows the roads to last another seven to 10 years, as opposed to a longer-term infrastructure overhaul that could last for 30 years. Because repairs under the High Impact Paving Program are not fully intensive, the costs - between $250,000 and $300,000 per mile -- are a third of what more-long-term road reconstruction costs.

Not only do residents see results almost instantly, but the High Impact Paving Program maintains a financially sound model for improving roads with limited funds. "High Impact lets us do more road improvement but also 'buy down' the daily operating and maintenance costs and stretch the lifecycle for aging streets by years," said Aaron Szopinski, Milwaukee's research and policy coordinator.

Some cities are navigating similar road-maintenance concerns by employing tech-based solutions to determine where maintenance needs are greatest. RoadBotics, a startup out of Carnegie Mellon University, focuses on monitoring the status of roads before emergency maintenance crews are needed to patch and repair. With smartphones mounted against a vehicle's windshield and the camera facing out, users can drive the roads and gather video of road conditions as well as the GPS location of stretches that need immediate attention. This method is more cost-effective and quicker than renting or purchasing expensive vans outfitted with sensors and other more sophisticated technology.

Kansas City is also reevaluating the way it conducts roadway maintenance by using data collected through its Smart City Program to predict where potholes will occur. The city ran one of its algorithms against road data from 2003 to 2012 and was able to predict where potholes would form with 76 percent accuracy.

The integration of technology-guided preventive maintenance enables cities to use materials and equipment already allocated for maintenance tasks through a more sophisticated lens. Programs like Milwaukee's High Impact Paving Program could integrate technology into their operations to further improve their road-service efforts.

Even as it currently operates, however, Milwaukee's short-term approach to a common infrastructure concern is paying clear dividends, and other jurisdictions are looking to join the city in the fast lane. Three suburbs have expressed interest in upgrading some of their locally connecting roadways to mimic the improvements seen in Milwaukee's, and the Milwaukee city council recently heard its second set of inter-jurisdictional project proposals.

As Milwaukee continues its High Impact Paving Program, the city must assess the long-term cost tradeoffs between the speed of quick fixes that improve roads by a few years versus time-intensive improvements that improve them by decades. While those questions will need to be addressed by local officials, the Milwaukee paving program's current operational focus of promptness and cost-effectiveness models the potential for short-term solutions that please residents and give them safer roads to get around on.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He can be reached at
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