If you’ve ever driven in an urban or residential area, you’ve probably encountered a utility cut. A utility cut is a section of pavement that has been removed to perform maintenance or repair on some part of the underground infrastructure—telecommunications, gas, water, power, storm and sanitary sewer, and so on. The condition of underground infrastructure is very difficult to monitor and maintain. In fact, some of the pipe infrastructures may be at least 150 years old with little to no maintenance. Failures and repairs are a common occurrence and cause great concern for agencies trying to maintain roadways. The Manual for Controlling and Reducing the Frequency of Pavement Utility Cuts by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) was developed to provide information to state and local agencies as they attempt to protect their infrastructure and maintain control of access to the public right of way. This is accomplished in two ways: develop a policy to regulate the frequency of utility cuts; and offer incentives to use more up-to-date technologies during utility construction.
State and local agencies know the effects of excessive pavement utility cuts on their highways and streets. These problems include excessive delays in traffic due to lane closures, increased traffic congestion and air quality concerns, damage to tires and vehicles caused by pavement roughness, increased deterioration of the pavement structure, and an increase in the funding needed to maintain, rehabilitate, and reconstruct pavements.
Utility cuts increase the roughness and rideability of the pavement surface resulting in both structural failures where the pavement cannot carry the traffic load and functional failure where the pavement surface does not provide a smooth ride for drivers. Left unattended, functional failures can become structural failures. For example, stormwater can undermine a utility cut and saturate the base causing failure. As urbanization and demand continue to increase, these effects will become more frequent if traditional trenching remains the standard of practice.
Local governments are now trying to implement public policy and initiatives to improve the quality of street repairs. These initiatives fall into three categories: incentives, fees, and regulations. Some examples of incentive-based fees are performing higher quality pavement cuts (such as infrared asphalt repair), using trenchless technology, and coordinating with other utilities to share trench repairs. Examples of fee-based policies are assessing permit fees, penalties for failed repairs within a certain period, implementing rental fees, and assessing pavement degradation fees. Examples of regulation-based policies include establishing a moratorium period that restricts trench construction on new pavement surfaces, requiring a larger area of repair (such as paving at least one lane), requiring utility owners to meet or exceed repair standards, and enhancing inspection requirements.
Although offering incentives and affecting public policy are effective, state and local agencies must still maintain the order in how these utility cuts are performed by integrating technology. Agencies must be open to emerging technologies—such as horizontal direction drilling, pipe bursting, and augur and slurry boring—and be fully supportive of changing the norm. Overall, this twofold method has been proven effective in helping agencies reduce the frequency of utility cuts and ultimately the deteriorate of the pavement surface.