As a driver, UMass Lowell associate professor Dr. Tzuyang Yu detests New England roads for their potholes, erosion and unevenness. Luckily for him, as a researcher he is now involved with a team devoted to improving the very roads that give him trouble on his commute.
But poor road infrastructure is not just a local problem.
Tom Smith, the head of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said in an interview with CNBC earlier this year that the country's road infrastructure "(relies) on the work that was done by former generations," and that the U.S. as a whole has failed to properly invest in its roads. The ASCE gave the country a "D+" on its 2017 "Infrastructure Report Card," a grade that was decided by a panel that analyzed federal data across 16 categories over a four-year period.
Yu pointed out that some of the problem stems from budget stagnation while the population of drivers and cars on the road has significantly increased.
"Currently, we have more than 683,000 highway bridges in this country. About 20 percent of them are what we call 'structurally deficient,'" he said. "This estimate tells us how severe this problem is. Which is why... we constantly see potholes on our roadways and we don't see this problem being solved immediately."
The Department of Transportation is looking to change that with an ambitious research project.
This team, referred to as the Transportation Infrastructure Durability Center, was awarded $14 million by the U.S.
UMass Lowell is one of six New England state schools participating in a consortium led by the University or Maine. Other schools are University of Vermont, University of Connecticut, University of Rhode Island and Western New England University.
Yu is one of 26 faculty members on the team, which also includes 100 undergraduate students spread across all five universities in its research arsenal. DOT engineers are also collaborating with the team.
The five-year project, which began in June 2018, focuses on monitoring and enhancing the life of local roads.
Yu said that, at this early stage, his UMass Lowell team is working on developing radar technology that would scan the roads to identify structural problems and assess the need for improvement. Radar, which is composed of electromagnetic waves that travel at the speed of light, is the right frequency to detect problems within roads because it transmits faster than the vehicles traveling on the highway.
His researchers are already running computer simulations and compiling data.
"We're on the right track and making good progress," he said.
Yu said he hopes the team can propose solutions to issues such as the cracking of concrete by the end of this year, a phenomenon all-too-familiar to New England drivers who have seen firsthand the damaging effects of salting icy roads.