Program keeps New York roads safer, less expensive

David Orr leads a drainage demonstration for highway maintenance workers.

The year 2015 as imagined in the classic film “Back to the Future” features transportation technology so advanced that time-traveling scientist Doc Brown scoffs to his 1980s-era confidantes not yet acquainted with the movie’s flying-car future: “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Alas, here in the real 2015, vehicles remain stubbornly earth-bound and roads still very much a necessity. And at Cornell University, a small team is dedicated to keeping those tens of thousands of miles of roads, highways and bridges spread across New York safe to drive and inexpensive to maintain.

The Cornell Local Roads Program (CLRP), part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, provides training and technical assistance to address the maintenance of local roadways and bridges across New York state. CLRP is one of 58 Local Technical Assistance Program Centers sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), with centers in every state and Puerto Rico plus regional programs serving tribal governments.

This month CLRP signed a new contract to maintain the collaboration between the FHWA, the New York Department of Transportation (DOT) and Cornell. The three-year contract, retroactively effective Dec. 1, includes two additional one-year extensions that push the full agreement through 2020. CLRP is set to receive $646,000 the first year with annual increases over the span of the contract to total $3.3 million over five years. The agreement, signed last week by Cornell, has been sent to the state for approval.

The renewed contract will allow the program to continue training and consulting with municipal officials and employees responsible for the maintenance, construction and management of local highways and bridges in New York state, says David Orr, CLRP director and senior engineer.

“Our job is to help highways departments do their jobs smarter,” Orr says. “Our expertise helps those responsible for local roads to help themselves by giving them the information they need to make them more successful at what they do. Our work helps keep New Yorkers safer, and ultimately reduces highway costs for all road users.”

The primary service of the program focuses on training and technical assistance, with staff engineers and Circuit Riders often conducting 60 or more workshops across New York state each year, according to Orr. Those workshops inform key decision makers and highway managers about critical topics that include pavement maintenance, legal issues, snow and ice removal, drainage and more.

As an extension program, Orr says the program provides a critical resource to the 1,601 local municipalities responsible for road maintenance in New York state as well as the DOT and others with highway responsibility. CLRP provides access to information across the entire statewide network comprised of municipalities with varying levels of resources, serving everything from a rural country lane and small village main streets to highways and boulevards of major cities.

“If you have a well-maintained road, no matter where it is, it’s going to be a safer road, and it’s going to be cheaper to operate,” Orr says.  

When not conducting statewide workshops, the team of six full-time employees tackle questions that range from legal issues regarding right-of-ways to the best time to pave a certain road. Engineers are also deployed into the field to provide assessment and consultation services for municipalities. In the past year, that work has included helping officials deal with flooding in the Tompkins County town of Enfeld to investigating why a culvert failed in Otsego County, all part of the program’s mission to deploy the most current information and resources across the state.  

CLRP earned national recognition in 2013 for developing inspection kits to improve rural sign safety, and in November was highlighted by Cornell President Elizabeth Garrett as an example of the university’s partnership with the city of Ithaca. The Cornell Asset Management Program (CAMP) teamed summer interns with the city of Ithaca’s Department of Public Works to collect pavement condition data across Ithaca. CLRP used that information to create a maintenance schedule for the city.

 Orr says CAMP helps municipalities overcome time and cost constraints that limit the implementation of individual pavement management systems. Technologic prowess makes operations more efficient and reduces costs. The program even created a smartphone app to help highway workers and everyday people identify invasive species. The app, “Stop NY Invasives” on Android phones and “NY Invasives” on iPhone, helps people to identify, handle and report species.

Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media officer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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