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Workers Who Really Pound the Pavement

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The next time you grow weary of driving over the same stretch of pavement on the way to work every day, consider the task of engineer David Bush.

As the local manager of a new Caltrans project, he has to cover one chunk of the Antelope Valley Freeway in Palmdale all day, every day, for the next two years. Of course, he doesn’t have to do it in a beat-up Corolla like some of us. His wheels are an orange 70-ton behemoth nicknamed Susie, one of two heavy vehicle simulator trucks purchased by Caltrans for about $1 million apiece to research pavement design.

Armed with a crew and a trailer full of gadgets, Bush will run the state’s monster truck thousands of times, back and forth, over 26-foot-long strips of concrete. Eventually, the crew will test about 1,400 feet of roadway.

Changes in the temperature and structure of the pavement will tell researchers how the road will hold up to years of wear and tear under 18-wheelers. But with Susie running about 5 mph, it’s going to be a long two years.

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“ ‘Boring’ is relative,” Bush said. “There’s always something to do here.”

Caltrans officials say the need to develop stronger, faster-setting pavement is urgent. The agency is spending $300 million a year to patch up California’s dilapidated, 1950s-era freeway network.

State officials plan to allocate $600 million a year for the next seven years to rehabilitate freeways statewide. Of utmost concern are truck lanes and freeways frequently used by big rigs, including the Golden State Freeway, the Pomona Freeway and the Long Beach Freeway.

Caltrans researchers are seeking the equivalent of the better mousetrap: a more durable, faster-drying concrete that will shorten the time it takes to lay pavement and minimize the traffic congestion usually associated with such work.

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The Palmdale test takes up one southbound lane and part of the shoulder, but Caltrans said the work would not cause traffic jams.

Caltrans purchased the two hydraulic-powered simulators in 1994, but has used them only for small-scale tests in controlled environments, said agency research chief Wesley C. Lum. The Palmdale experiment marks Susie’s first field test, he said.

Still, the crew must exercise a certain degree of control over the pavement in order to measure the effects of the pressure. They have erected an insulated enclosure around the test area to keep the concrete at 68 degrees. Each time they shift to a different sliver of road, they must break down and reassemble the enclosure, which takes at least a day.

Once the surroundings are set, the crew fires up the 74-foot-long vehicle and rolls its heavy test wheel over the pavement. Researchers can vary the weight of the wheel from 4,500 pounds to 22,500 pounds to simulate truck traffic.

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During the research project, the Caltrans crew--which includes experts from Dynatest Engineering and South Africa’s Council on Scientific and Industrial Research--will test two 700-foot sections of concrete with various thickness, widths and strengths.

Results of earlier tests have prompted the agency to require contractors to compact freshly laid concrete to a precise point, and to mandate that a sticky bonding material be applied between layers of concrete, Lum said.

Data from the Palmdale tests will be shared with Federal Highway Administration researchers using automated trucks to study asphalt on a two-mile track near Reno, Nev., he said.

“The real key here is being able to take the results from this and improve how we do things,” he said. “We constructed [the state’s freeways] 30 or 40 years ago. The time to replace them is now.”

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