Casting the future in concrete

So, you’re late for work, driving fast, about to take a sip of joe when—wham-o!—you hit a big pothole and coffee sloshes over your neatly pressed shirt.

“Damn,” you say, “I wish they would preserve these roads better.” Or something unprintable to that effect.

Hey, guess what? “They” are trying to make roads last longer, and Chico State has become one of the epicenters of the effort. Thanks to a $1.8 million grant from the California Department of Transportation, the university now is home to what is known as the California Pavement Preservation Center. The center will work closely with the Pavement Preservation Task Group, which is made up of members from Caltrans, the pavement industry, local agencies and academia.

“We chose Chico State because it’s promisin, with the people and passion for taking on new and innovative technology,” said Shakir Shatnawi, chief in the office of pavement preservation at Caltrans. “They have a concrete management program, and the potential for success is higher there.”

Pavement and concrete—they go together, right? And it’s true that the university has a new (as of this semester) Concrete Industry Management program. And why not? Concrete is a $150 billion industry, and like other industries related to construction, it has far outgrown its blue-collar origins in terms of organizational and technological complexity, and is always looking to employ skilled people.

“We believe that the future for our industry depends on having good, talented, degreed individuals that have more than a basic knowledge of concrete,” Gene Martineau, president and CEO of U.S. Concrete and chairman of the National Steering Committee for Concrete Industry Management, said in a press release.

Chico State is one of four schools nationwide with such a program and is set to supply the entire Northwest with the future leaders in the concrete industry, said Kristin Cooper Carter, the program’s director. The New Jersey Institute of Technology, Middle Tennessee State University and Arizona State University have similar programs.

The national steering committee wrote a $50,000 check to the program and will match it in the spring semester, she said. The money is just part of an overall $5 million in funding the program expects over the next five years, half from local industry leaders and the other half from the national steering committee.

Students in the program will not only get “unique access” to CEOs and top executives in the industry, they will also have the advantage of working closely with one of three pavement preservation centers in the nation, Carter said.

The University of Michigan established the first pavement preservation center—now the National Center for Pavement Preservation—and the University of Texas followed Chico State’s direction by establishing a center this year as well, Shatnawi said.

Pavement preservation is a new concept in the industry that focuses on cutting costs of road construction by maintaining the condition of quality roads instead of repairing already deteriorated pavements, explained Professor Thomas Ferrara of the Civil Engineering Department.

“The concept is tricky: You maintain the good roads to avoid spending a lot of money to rebuild old roads,” Ferrara said at a recent Civil Engineering Department Professional Advisory Board meeting. “This is a real challenge, as I see it, but it’s an opportunity to move forward.”

With opportunity comes a challenge, and the challenge for the CPPC is going to be tough, Ferrara said. The center will need to show early benefits of pavement preservation to the decision makers who appropriate funds.

Working with civil engineering students, Ferrara and the center will test pavement preservation theories on local road construction to show its cost effectiveness. He likened the idea to that of maintaining San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

“They spent a lot of money building the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said. “So, we paint it because we don’t want it to salt away in the ocean air, then we paint it again.”

Pending good results, Ferrara sees the center having a bright future for the Civil Engineering Department.

“As quickly as we can, we’ll be inviting people to study here for a master’s degree and hopefully have a specialized master’s degree through civil engineering and the California Pavement Preservation Center,” Ferrara said. “The leaders of this expanding industry will come from Chico State.”