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Pothole-free roads? Yes, it’s possible with better asphalt, says Queen’s University professor

There is a man in Kingston who says he can build roads that defy aging.

Imagine roads free of potholes and cracks. That would lead to fewer repairs, fewer traffic jams and maybe, just maybe, a significant reduction in road rage. It sounds like utopia and Simon Hesp sounds like a man given to hyperbole — a rogue in the industry, as a chemical engineer in a field that belongs to civil engineers. But the Queen’s University professor has the bona fides to back up his claims.

“We had potholes in Kingston the size of buses,” Hesp says. “That will never happen again, because they are listening 100 per cent and are nice guys.” Hesp developed several tests that identify “garbage” asphalt. Kingston adopted those tests in 2009, and what they get, essentially, is more pure asphalt, largely free of cheap additives and modifiers. Kingston now considers itself the leading municipality in road science in the country. The strict standards are mandatory for construction on arterial and collector roads and on some local roads.

“This is just the fifth winter with the new standards,” says Mark Campbell, construction manager of the engineering department with the City of Kingston. “So it’s early yet, but it’s certainly standing up very well. No cracks at all.”

Campbell says the new standards are more expensive than the old method, but “it’s rather comparable and, if the research holds true, we will see significant repair savings in the years to come.” It’s not that much more expensive, because the science behind it isn’t groundbreaking, to use a Hesp pun. “This was known in 1936. That is 80 years ago, yeah. It was published in the asphalt literature,” says Hesp, a Dutch native. “We’re not doing something revolutionary, more something evolutionary.”

Pavement research is a huge deal. Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation spends $2.2 billion on road repairs and construction annually. In Toronto, the city spent $155 million on repairing roads in 2013, which included fixing more than 188,000 potholes, a nearly four-fold increase since 2002. Toronto spends nearly $4 million annually on pothole repairs alone.

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