Iowa City Press-Citizen: Sustainability Hard to Measure in Road Maintenance

Monday, January 31, 2011

By B.A. Morelli
Iowa City Press-Citizen

A University of Iowa professor said one of the challenges in the push to become an environmentally sustainable world is deciding how to measure sustainability.

Sustainability is a new emphasis in road maintenance, but it is a concept in which metric-minded civil engineers struggle, said Wilfrid Nixon, a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

"If you ask to build a highway, I can do that. But, if you say, 'Build me a sustainable highway,' I would say, 'Well, how do you measure that?'" said Nixon, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. "That is the question for us. How do we start measuring this?"

Nixon, an authority on winter highway maintenance, has been called to Sweden to participate in a conference about how budget-strapped government entities can deal with snow removal in a quick and efficient way. Nixon will travel to Ostersund, Sweden, to speak at the inaugural session of the Winter Exhibition Nordicway from Tuesday to Thursday.

"They are all pretty used to dealing with snow. The issue for them is how to deal with snow as quickly and efficiently as possible," Nixon said. "Everyone is dealing with tight budgets. That is their concern."

Leaders also must grapple with safety. About 2,200 annual highway fatalities can be partly attributed to winter conditions, according to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, according to UI.

Economics has long been the leading viewpoint driving the discussion of how best to maintain roads in the winter, Nixon said. For example, officials try to get the latest, cost-effective technology to meet the demand. But the discussion has broadened to include sustainability, or being environmentally friendly, and social context for road maintenance.

Nixon visited a rural county in Washington where an irrigation canal ran alongside the road and many people in the county drove pickup trucks and didn't seem to mind some snow on the road. In that situation, they may not need to rely on chemicals as much as in another setting, he said.

That is an example of a new way of looking at winter road maintenance where expectations and setting can help dictate response, he said. But because it is subjective, it also presents a challenge, he said.

"Those things can be rather challenging for engineers. There are no equations that allow us to calculate the social impact," he said.