How Mesa and ASU are collaborating on new longer-lasting pavement for town

Maritza Dominguez
Arizona Republic

Mesa could be the first city in the Valley to apply new pavement techniques to its roads after it joined Arizona State University's research group.

The city is teaming up with ASU to experiment ways to save money, extend the life of roads and find environmentally sustainable solutions to pavement challenges.

The university launched the Southwest Pavement Technology Consortium to get academics, cities and the construction industry to work together in applying new research on the roads.

Hasan Ozer, professor of ASU's School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment and the consortium director, began the partnership because he wanted to be more involved with the community. "So it's just not me sitting in the office," he said.

The construction industry and cities are facing challenges in extending pavement and asphalt's life span as well as finding new methods to curb heat island effects. Each of the three participants has worked on research or tried new methods independently, but the research group will help streamline the process and have all three "pillars" on the same page.

Along with the researchers and Mesa, various companies such as ViaSun, Vulcan Materials Companies and others signed on.

Ozer said the consortium, in addition to working with the cities and industry companies, will help his students get the chance to apply their research outside the classroom.

"We would like to see more and more connection of this lab research to the field," Ozer said.

What type of research will ASU explore?

Professor Hasan Ozer shows pavement block samples that are used for testing in a research lab at Arizona State University.

Because the consortium is just getting off the ground, Ozer is still mapping out the type of studies researchers could explore. The consortium’s board will be a guiding voice for Ozer and his team on the type of research they will pursue.

"I have to collect those ideas from them to see what their needs are," he said.

Newly constructed roads can typically last 20 to 30 years, but Ozer said he sees roads often not meeting that targeted lifespan. With this research, he wants to prevent premature deterioration. Beyond the harsh heat contributing to the roads' deterioration, the increased traffic and growing population is adding to it, Ozer said.

Ozer is interested in making pavement permeable, meaning it would allow water to seep into asphalt and pavement rather than having it run off into the drains. Other states across the country have used this technique, such as Connecticut and Vermont.

Previous research has found that porous pavement can help with water pooling on the roads and lower the possibility of hydroplaning, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet. In colder regions, researchers are also tracking how to mitigate moisture damage to the pavement mixtures.

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Those states have different weather than ours, so Ozer said he would need to evaluate how to make it work with Arizona's climate.

"We can help in the consortium to see, to research in the lab, in the field and then make a sound decision for those agencies whether they can use it or not," Ozer said.

Ozer and his team will also work with the industry to help with workforce training. The techniques used to lay down pavement can be just important as the materials to ensure pavement has a long lifespan.

One way they'll be able to do that is with drone technology. One of Ozer's students developed a plan to use drones to monitor workers laying down pavement or asphalt and give feedback in real time.

They also plan to use thermal cameras to find weak spots in the aging pavement.

The drone research students will use in the field to detect weak spots in pavement and give feedback to companies as workers lay down roads.

Mesa on board with ASU research

Mesa joined the effort with ASU to be at the table where research decisions are made and to be on the same page as the industry.

On average, the city spends close to $30 million a year on pavement. That's separate from any capital improvement projects the city undertakes to widen existing streets or build out new ones.

Those are funded by a 2020 voter-approved bond and reimbursements from the Maricopa Association of Governments, said Mesa's transportation director RJ Zeder.

To keep up with the city's sustainability goals, the transportation department is already using new techniques and materials when repaving roads. Those include a polymer-modified tire product from recycled rubber to provide more elasticity to the pavement. Zeder said this tactic has given the city's pavement an additional lifespan and is more cost-effective in the long run.

Another technique is stripping the asphalt off the road, mixing it in with a bit of new asphalt and re-laying it on the street.

"We are literally picking up the old pavement and putting that back down over," Zeder said.

The city repaves about 75 lane miles of public streets each fiscal year, Zeder said, noting Mesa has more than 3000 lane miles.

"The goal is to get the most cost-effective asphalt design," he said.

The city is also interested in using pavement to address the urban heat island effect.

Zeder said he and his team ran a small experiment in the parking lot of the transportation building. They added a different surface seal on the pavement to see how it would reflect the sun and if it could have a cooling effect. It didn't hold up well, Zeder said.

Mesa could be one of the first cities in the Valley to pilot these research materials and techniques by the ASU researcher.

"We're nimble enough that it can happen very quickly," Zeder said.

Reporter Maritza Dominguez covers Mesa/Gilbert and can be reached at or 480-271-0646. Follow her on Twitter @maritzacdom.