Van with cameras and lasers travels KC to study road conditions

Winfield Cash, a field technician for Stantec, drove a specialized van loaded with lasers and cameras while computers collected data on the road conditions last month in Kansas City.
Winfield Cash, a field technician for Stantec, drove a specialized van loaded with lasers and cameras while computers collected data on the road conditions last month in Kansas City. The Kansas City Star

For a little more than two months, Winfield Cash and Abel Newman have been driving Kansas City’s roads, traveling the major thoroughfares as well as residential streets.

There’s no doubt that their white, full-sized Ford van looks a little odd. Besides the flashing amber lights, there are boxes containing lasers on the front and the back of the vehicle and a mast on top supporting a camera.

“A lot of people think we are Google Maps,” Cash said. “They see the camera, and they want to wave to us.”

But they aren’t Google employees or contractors. They work for the engineering, consulting and design company Stantec Inc., which Kansas City hired to survey the city’s entire road system to help determine the condition of every mile.

“You are looking at about 6,500 lane miles that they are assessing,” said Sean Demory, spokesman for Kansas City’s Public Works Department.

It’s a pretty substantial undertaking.

A $450,000 project is underway to determine the condition of Kansas City's roads - all 6,500 lane miles of them. The city has contracted with Stantec Inc. to collect data on road conditions. (Oct. 1, 2015) (Video by Robert A. Cronkleton | The Kans

“We have the equivalents of a two-lane road from Boston to San Diego or a one-lane road from Kansas City to Tokyo,” he said. “It’s a lot of road.”

Previously, the city had individual inspectors checking the roads and logging their conditions. To do the full system would take three years.

With their specially equipped van, Cash and Newman will be able to cut the time to do the inspections to about four months. Cash said they will drive about 2,700 lane miles to assess the condition of all of Kansas City’s roads.

“We drive around the city every day,” said Cash, a driver and technician for Stantec, which is publicly traded. “The equipment we use will tell us if there’s any kind of distresses such as raveling, rutting and any potholes.”

A 360-degree camera on top of the van records all of the city’s assets such as curbs, drainage, street signs, manholes and fire hydrants.

In the front, lasers measure the roughness of the road surface as well as any other pavement problems. There are also lasers in the back that measure cracks in the road, telling how deep or wide the cracks might be.

With data still being collected and yet to be analyzed, it’s hard to say how the Kansas City roads fare, Cash said.

“You have some roads that are in perfect condition and you have some roads that are in rough condition, just like any city in the country,” he said.

So far, there has not been any huge surprises, Demory said.

“It looks like things are pretty much where we thought it was going to be,” he said.

The city is paying about $450,000 for the project, which began in late July. The city is hoping the data will help it determine where its funds would be most effectively used.

“It’s the difference between shoring up a road surface and taking a few hours out to do a repair and blocking a lane or closing a road for several weeks because you have to replace down to the bedrock,” Demory said.

Olathe used Stantec’s services three years ago to assess the pavement conditions of its arterial streets, said Jeff Beal, Olathe’s pavement manager.

“It’s a good process and the same process you would do if doing inspections and measuring the distresses in the pavement yourself — except it’s at traffic speed,” Beal said.

Overland Park is awaiting results from a pilot project with Stantec to see if the automated processes match the rating values that the city gets with manual methods.

“It holds promise for doing surveys much more quickly and more objectively,” said Michael Ross, city engineer for Overland Park.

Tom Viviano, asset manager for Kansas City’s Public Works Department who oversees the project, pointed out that once it is finished, the city will have accurate data not only on the pavement conditions, but on other infrastructure assets in the public right-of-way.

“Right now we haven’t had records; we haven’t had some data,” he said. “This drive through will be able to give us a lot of information we don’t have.”

Robert A. Cronkleton: 816-234-4261, @cronkb