Social costs of road work being studied at UW

WATERLOO, Ont. -- The Centre for the Advancement of Trenchless Technologies at the University of Waterloo is breaking new ground -- but not with just a drill or a backhoe.

In a move that CATT executive director Prof. Rob McKim admits is "a departure for an engineering department," the centre is studying the social costs of digging up roads to repair pipes and cables.

"It's not traditionally within the realm of civil engineering," said McKim, who admits that departing from the usual nuts and bolts engineering work has raised some eyebrows among his faculty colleagues. In the study, graduate student Jeff Woods is surveying businesses affected by last summer's construction work on King Street in Waterloo. Under the joint supervision of McKim and Prof. Keith Hipel, systems design engineering, Woods is asking both quantitative and qualitative questions about the road project.

The survey is collecting hard data related to cash flow and numbers of customers, as well as inquiring about the disruption in subjective terms such as noise levels and perception of the impact on business. Questions such as, "Are coffee shops affected differently from banks?" will also be explored in assessing the results.

Why study social costs? According to McKim, while some kinds of trenchless technology (used in installing and repairing pipes) save money for municipalities, other kinds cost more.

"We often can't justify it by construction costs alone, but there are other costs involved -- the costs of closing down a road and detouring traffic, the impact on businesses. The total cost to society includes both the construction and the social costs, and we're trying to quantify the social costs in terms of hard numbers."

Not only is such a topic a change for engineers in terms of their traditional knowledge base, McKim noted, but it also represents a philosophical change.

"There's a lot we can learn from other sciences, the social sciences, economics, accounting," in conducting such studies, he said. "We can't be isolated from social values as we have in the past. We have to integrate ourselves into society."

Despite offering a Society, Technology and Values program, dealing with such issues, "we're not producing engineers with well-developed social consciences." He admits such concerns are not totally altruistic.

"We are forced to consider social issues now to justify the technology. If we don't consider it, we don't get to play with interesting technology, such as robotics."

Although some trenchless technology was employed in the King Street construction project, the benefits were not apparent, said McKim, because the entire street was torn up and replaced, causing a major disruption to vehicle and pedestrian traffic. In contrast, replacement of sewer pipes along Westmount Road in Waterloo, also last summer, was carried out using trenchless technology.

Rather than trenching along the entire pipeline connecting each home to the sewer main under the street, a small hole was dug at each end of the pipe being replaced, and a technique called pipebursting was used to remove the old pipe and replace it with a new one.

As a result, two lanes of traffic were kept open throughout the project, and there was minimal damage to lawns and gardens of property owners. The process is something like the use of laparoscopic ("keyhole") surgery to replace the extensive incisions traditionally performed during an abdominal operation, he explained.

With the water, sewer and gas mains installed across Canada between 1945 and 1965 reaching the end of their service life and needing replacement within the next 10 to 20 years, the costs in this country alone could run to $100 billion. Initially installed in undeveloped areas, these underground services have now been surrounded with roads and buildings.

"The original methods of installation are no longer appropriate without major disruption to people and traffic. And society, over the years, has become very intolerant of mess -- the inconvenience of construction."

Enter trenchless technology, a development of the past 10 years that has evolved to minimize both environmental and social damage. UW has been at the forefront of the developments, and remains one of two North American universities with centres specializing in the technology. The other centre is at Louisiana Technical University.

In Waterloo, CATT grew out of a partnership between the university and the City of Waterloo formed in response to problems with faulty sewer laterals. Looking at potential repair costs of some $30 million for a traditional trenching approach, the city expects to save up to $6 million by incorporating the trenchless alternative developed by UW and Trenchless Replacement Systems of Calgary, who with the city became founding partners in CATT.

Since 1994, the centre has grown to include 53 industrial partners, the cities of Kitchener, London, Scarborough, Thunder Bay, Windsor, Winnipeg, and the regional municipalities of Halton, Hamilton-Wentworth, Peel and Waterloo, as well as participation by several "very active graduate students." In that time, the centre has generated some $500,000 in research funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the municipalities and industry.

"On Aug. 18, National Research Council president Arthur Carty signed a collaborative agreement with the University of Waterloo confirming NRC as founding partners and lifetime members of CATT," McKim said. "NRC's support has been critical in the development of this technology in Canada and North America."

This spring, the department of civil engineering offered its first graduate level course in trenchless technology construction methods -- one of the first in North America -- and undergraduates are currently introduced to the technology as part of a fourth-year course. McKim would like to see trenchless content expanded in the curriculum, from both technological and social perspectives, and he anticipates more cross-disciplinary collaboration in the process.

As well, the centre focuses on technology transfer, educating both industry and the municipal decision makers about new developments in the field.

"Something we do well is forming partnerships, for the benefit of the industry and society, among groups that would not normally work together," McKim said.


Contact: Prof. Rob McKim, (519) 888-4567, ext. 3350

Written by Barbara Elve, UW Gazette

From Jim Fox, UW News Bureau, (519) 888-4444

Release no. 141 -- September 25, 1997