Precast plays a starring role in Integrated Roadways’ remedy to the financial burden of rebuilding aging roadways.
By Shari Held
Photos courtesy Integrated Roadways Inc.
Technologically enhanced roadways alerting drivers to real-time traffic and road conditions, providing Wi-Fi and networking capabilities, charging electric cars, and communicating with autonomous vehicles may sound like something out of “Star Trek.” But Tim Sylvester, founder and CEO of Kansas City, Mo.-based Integrated Roadways, is on a mission to make it happen now.
Integrated Roadways’ patented Smart Pavement system embeds advanced technology in interlocking precast concrete pavement slabs for quick and easy installation.
Some services are still on the drawing board, but eventually Sylvester envisions the Smart Pavement service menu will include:
• Traffic data collection through in-road sensors.
• Sensor packages — weather sensors, black ice detectors, pollution detectors, water leak detectors, etc.
• Edge services and cloud technology.
• Networking/wireless communications (Wi-Fi, 5G, etc.) through antennas in the expansion ports.
• Wireless EV charging and assisted autonomy.
This summer, Integrated Roadways begins production and installation of Smart Pavement in a Lenexa, Kan., intersection, bringing Sylvester one step closer to realizing his dream. This intersection is one of five scheduled for the new Lenexa City Center project.
With this project, Sylvester intends to prove how beneficial Smart Pavement can be for municipalities, commercial businesses and drivers so other cities will be motivated to install Smart Pavement.
“Let’s get things moving,” Sylvester said, “so America can rebuild its infrastructure.”
Lenexa shares Sylvester’s enthusiasm.
“Lenexa doesn’t want to be bleeding edge,” said Tim Green, city engineer/deputy director for the city of Lenexa, “but doing something to get out in front of other cities is always a goal of ours.”
Sylvester first approached the city in 2019. Even though Lenexa was receptive, there were roadblocks.
For one, Integrated Roadways needed an agreement that it, as a private entity, could use the public right of way to conduct testing and data retrieval.
“We had to think outside the box to figure out how to do this,” Green said. “Who maintains what? Who owns what portion of the infrastructure? Those kinds of things. It’s been a learning experience for us, but we’ve got a good process in place moving forward.”
The city also applied for and received an Integrated Technology grant from the state of Kansas and the Kansas Department of Transportation. Determining what was eligible to be paid for by the grant was a challenge since this was new territory for everyone involved.
“It took longer than we had hoped, but now we’ll be able to move pretty quickly,” Green said.
Ongoing Prep Work
The development of Smart Pavement doesn’t wait for a project to be approved. Charting new technology territory requires trial and error, testing and retesting. Brad Werth, vice president of Precast Group and Business Development for McPherson Concrete Companies, said they’re learning as they go.
“From our perspective, it’s exciting to be involved with a cutting-edge technology product,” Werth said. “Concrete has been around since the Roman Empire, so people don’t think of it as a new technology. This gives us an opportunity for precast to become a more prominent product within the pavement industry.”
Currently, McPherson, Kan.-based McPherson Concrete is testing cellular antennas to determine what type of antenna will produce the best results by measuring the reception received at various distances.
“The challenge with casting the antenna into the concrete pavement is to determine if Integrated Roadways can get the reception needed to make it practical,” Werth said.
The company also built a demo pad for Integrated Roadways to test how much, if any, of its charging capabilities an electric car charger will lose when encased in precast. For this test project, McPherson Concrete created a non-metallic environment for the charging apparatus, requiring a reinforcement design alteration of the slabs. Gator bar, a non-metallic basalt fiber reinforced with polymer, is lighter and stronger than the originally used steel rebar and doesn’t interfere with the charger.
As of yet, no decision had been made on the type of technology that will be included in the Smart Pavement for the City Center.
“When we fabricate the pavement panels for the City Center, it’s going to be a different animal altogether,” Werth said.
Building on Success
Denver, Colo., was the first city to showcase Smart Pavement when it chose Integrated Roadways to install four slabs at its busy Brighton Boulevard intersection. The 32 sensors and 16 expansion ports embedded in the pavement collect traffic data — the number of vehicles on the road at different times of day, the speed they travel and even the vehicle makes and models.
The panels were wet cast by McPherson Concrete. Werth said the only production process challenge was casting the delicate fiber optic cables in the concrete without damaging them. Installation was a breeze.
“The Colorado project was a construction proof to show that it could be built without any trouble,” Sylvester said. “We also needed to prove the technology would work, which we did.”
Precast: The Perfect Housing Material
Sylvester champions the use of precast concrete for Smart Pavement slabs for many reasons. It is factory-built, which allows Integrated Roadways to take advantage of production-line economies of scale. The technology is installed in the factory so it’s ready to be laid at the job site. And the interlocking precast slabs are modular, so they can be easily and quickly installed and, if needed, a section removed and replaced with no disruption to the rest of the roadway.
Sylvester anticipates 80% of the slabs for a continuous roadway will be a uniform size and shape, while 20% will need to be modified to accommodate road curvature and other issues.
“Eventually, I think we’ll have a catalogue of all our different designs and people can order them to fit their needs,” Sylvester said.
Another big plus to using precast is the time factor.
“The amount of time it takes to build a road is one of the biggest issues with road building,” Sylvester said. “You’ve always got traffic waiting. Putting the technology in place on-site would slow down the road building process. With precast, you can build the road twice as fast.”
In Kansas, cast-in-place concrete is simply not a viable option.
“We’ve got only a couple months of good concrete weather,” Green said. “We’re always dealing with hot and cold temperatures, windy conditions and high humidity. One benefit of precast is you can make the panels under more controlled conditions. Almost all our parking garages are precast, and they hold up very well. We anticipate we will have a long life from our Smart Pavement.”
Kansas, Here We Come
When complete, Lenexa City Center, a new urbanist development, will include City Hall, a recreation center and mixed-use, multi-story buildings featuring ground-level retail shops and upper-level offices and residences.
“It’s such a growing area. The benefit to the city will be to know what type of traffic we are getting, where it’s going and if there are congestion issues we need to deal with,” Green said. “It’s a great location for cutting-edge technology that we can use in our new development.”
With the Lenexa City Center project, Sylvester’s goal is to prove the validity of Integrated Roadways’ business model. The company obtains private sector financing for each individual project. These private investors finance the building of public roadways and will be repaid from the revenue collected from Integrated Roadways’ sale of services and information to commercial entities.
“What we’re trying to do is show that roads can pay for their own existence from the data collection, wireless communications, wireless charging and all the other capabilities that digital infrastructure can provide,” Sylvester said.
Green sees big advantages for cities with this business model.
“If they could take the money they now have to spend for new roadways and use it toward infrastructure maintenance, it would be a huge boost to cities,” Green said.
Green said the automated traffic data collecting capability of Smart Pavement also will save the city money. The manual process of sending workers out with counters or laying tubes over the road is a labor-intensive, time-consuming and expensive process.
“With the Integrated Roadways infrastructure in place, the hope is we can just pull up a website, look at a dashboard and see the amount of traffic during a certain time period,” Green said.
During the next decade, Sylvester’s goal is to upgrade 10 to 20% of Lenexa’s roadways, intersections and continuous pavement, adding more and more intersections.
“Eventually we’ll start to build out the entire region and link it together, so large portions of the city can access our menu of services,” Sylvester said.
In the meantime, Lenexa benefits from the digital collection of traffic data and partnering with companies such as Integrated Roadways that are advancing this new technology. The city also hopes companies visiting Lenexa to see how Smart Pavement works for the city will decide to put down roots there.
“There’s just a lot of benefits to us,” Green said. “And the potential drawbacks are minimal to nil.”
Shari Held is an Indianapolis-based freelance writer who has covered the construction industry for more than 10 years.