Caltrans’ Smoothness Specification Is a Wake-Up Call for Paving Contractors

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In some recent national surveys of road users, drivers have listed smooth pavements as their top preferred highway characteristic. Smoother highways not only make for a more comfortable ride, but they are also safe, last longer and stay smooth longer. They also save motorists money by reducing the cost of vehicle repairs and improving fuel efficiency, which in turn is also good for the environment.

It is no surprise then that in California, Caltrans has undertaken significant efforts to improve highway smoothness. In 2012, Caltrans shifted away from an older method of measuring road smoothness, and began using a specification that called for a much more advanced piece of equipment known as an Inertial Profiler. An Inertial Profiler is a truck-mounted measuring device that projects a laser onto the road as it drives, and it works in conjunction with an advanced software program to process and display the smoothness data. The Inertial Profiler is so advanced that it can reveal the existence of bumps and dips that are not visible to the naked eye. Depending on the significance of these invisible bumps and dips, and the thresholds set by the engineer, they may need to be repaired.

When Caltrans unrolled the new smoothness specifications in 2012, some paving contractors were in for a rude awakening. Many contractors had a hard time adjusting to the learning curve and they resisted relying on Caltrans’ software. How do you fix a bump that is 100 feet long and is not visible? In a recent article published in the Sacramento Bee, several paving contractors reported that at first, they were not even close to the specification. Gone are the days where a contractor can rely on its decades of experience and assume that it can achieve a specification without enlisting the help of an expert. This adjustment to the learning curve prompted several claims by contractors for additional compensation as delays and costs mounted.

Initially, some Dispute Resolution Boards entertained some paving contractors’ claims for additional payment. However, with the right expert in the field, more contractors are having success achieving the specification without concern. Caltrans is continuing to work with industry through the Smoothness Specification Task Group to adjust the specification, but in the short term, this area of construction will be ripe for litigation, especially for the unsuspecting paving contractor that does not seek out the right experts in the early stages of a project.

Originally published as “OP-ED: Smoothness specifications present wake-up call for contractors” on July 19, 2018, by the Daily Journal of Commerce.

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Ryan C. Wood
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