Updated: Dec 28, 2019
Tom Pyle never thought about becoming an engineer … until he turned 12. That was the year his Webelos Scout troop in McLean, Virginia took part in a father/son catapult-building competition.
“Our catapult had a dumb spring under the launch arm that my dad, a civil engineer, was determined to place there,” Pyle recalls. “It was stupid and looked different. None of my friends’ catapults had a spring AND a counterweight. I was so embarrassed … until we won the competition.”
That experience left an indelible impression on the young Pyle. It taught him that there is usually more than one way to solve an engineering problem. And that by looking at a problem from different angles, one can often discover new, more effective solutions.
Paving for Sustainability
Today, as the chief of the Office of Asphalt Pavements for the California Department of Transportation’s (Caltrans) Pavement Program, Pyle applies this lesson daily to the challenge of how to design and build the strongest, most sustainable long-life pavement for California’s state and interstate highways.
“Giving our roads their longest possible life has been a recurring theme in my career,” said Pyle. “We can make the pavement last much longer with better designs, more precise specifications and construction practices that are both good for our pocketbook – and good for the planet.”
Caltrans currently maintains more than 15,000 miles of state and interstate highways and approximately 13,000 state highway bridges.
Pyle’s exposure to engineering began long before he understood what the word meant. Born in Sacramento, Calif., he spent his preteen years moving with his family to pursue civil engineering opportunities for his dad. First it was Bangladesh, then Virginia, then back to California where they settled in Bakersfield.
Pyle remembers his parents as being “quite the adventurers.”
“No matter where we lived or vacationed, we were always exploring,” he said. Family outings included camping and backpacking trips to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, and frequent ski trips to Mammoth Mountain. Even at home, Pyle was constantly exploring the world of how to build stuff with his dad; projects included designing wooden furniture and building a complete patio for their home.
So when it came time to select a major for college, engineering seemed like a natural choice. Actually, the hardest decision for the 6’5” Pyle was whether to attend Sacramento State, where he could ski on weekends, or Cal State Long Beach, where he could play college volleyball. In the end, the mountains won; he earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Sacramento State.
Since joining Caltrans in 1986, Pyle has been exposed to nearly all aspects of the agency’s work on pavement design and development. Since 2000, he’s had the opportunity to lead every one of the agency’s major Pavement Program offices, including Concrete Pavements, Pavement Management, Pavement Programming and today, Asphalt Pavements.
“The two factors that always beat up our pavement are large trucks (due to their weight) and weather,” explained Pyle. “Even on a nice day, the diurnal heating and cooling of pavement can really take a toll.”
Addressing these relentless forces of nature and commerce has challenged Pyle to continually seek new ways to develop sustainable, long-life pavement.
While leading the Concrete Pavements office in 2007, for example, he helped develop a manual on how to build concrete roads with a 100-year design life, five times longer than the previous standard. The new approach called for using thicker pavement, superior materials and advanced construction techniques. Unfortunately, the manual was put on the shelf a year later in the wake of the Great Recession.
Smoothing the Future
Today, Pyle is most excited about his office’s development of a new, faster, less-expensive way to create sustainable asphalt pavements. Instead of grinding up a road’s old top layer, hauling it off to a landfill, then replacing it with new materials, Caltrans workers can now grind up the top layer, reheat it, add oil and sand to create “new” asphalt, then reapply it to the original road surface.
Pyle’s team is also extending the life of highways – and the planet – by developing new standards for pavement smoothness.
“15 years ago, we just wanted smooth pavements so we could put a cup of coffee on the dashboard and not have it spill,” he said with a grin. “It turns out, however, that smooth roads not only enhance a highway’s long-term performance, but also increase vehicle fuel efficiency by as much as three percent.”
Smoother roads, he explained, reduce the bouncing impact of tires on the pavement, which helps concrete and asphalt roads last longer. Reducing vehicle fuel consumption also reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which helps combat climate change.
Pyle’s work days begin early at his home in Vacaville, a town of 100,000 about 35 miles southwest of Sacramento. After fixing lunches and breakfast for his family, he ride shares to work with his wife – also a Caltrans employee – in their 2001 Lexus sedan.
Many commuters keep themselves company with a car radio, music or perhaps their favorite podcasts. Not Pyle. He spends his daily, 50-minute trip to Caltrans headquarters in downtown Sacramento inspecting the pavement along the entire route. “I’m actually happy if we encounter traffic along the way,” he said, smiling. “It allows me to slow down, get a good look at the pavement and assess how well it’s holding up.”
Pyle describes a typical day in his office as “1-800-Asphalt-Pavement.”
“My team is focused on asphalt pavement preservation, design, research and reconstruction,” he said. “We answer calls from Caltrans’ districts about design or construction issues, work on new research, and meet with contractors about new materials or challenging design issues.”
The Big Squeeze
And what does Pyle consider Caltrans’ biggest maintenance challenge these days? Traffic. Morning rush hour can start as early as 4:30 a.m. while evening rush hour often extends past 8:00 p.m.
“As traffic volumes continue to grow, our work windows continue to shrink,” he said. “Driver patience with road work, congestion, and traffic delays is also growing thin.”
Fortunately, he saw this day coming. Two years ago, while reviewing road repair strategies with his local Caltrans district director, Pyle recommended that the agency revisit its decade-old manual on how to produce 100-year pavements, and apply those principles to an upcoming pavement project. The director agreed, and Caltrans now plans to use the recommended long-life pavement design – continuously reinforced concrete pavement over a hot-mix asphalt layer – to rehabilitate a very congested, five-mile section of U.S. Highway 50 that runs through Sacramento.
“The public won’t tolerate closure of this road in the future,” said Pyle. “But I think they’ll be open to the idea that once we rebuild the road, we’ll never have to shut it down again in their lifetime.”
Pyle is proud of the role that he and his Caltrans colleagues play in creating safe, sustainable, long-life highways for California travelers. Ironically, he observes, his team's best work is often completely invisible.
“If our pavement engineers have done their job, the public will never have to think about whether the road surface is black or white,” said Pyle. “We know we’ve succeeded when the public just drives on our roads and thinks about anything else.”
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