Tim Sylvester's pride and joy is a pair of flat, gray slabs of concrete on northbound Interstate 35, between the Gardner Drive and city of Gardner exits. The 31-year-old founder and sole employee of Integrated Roadways talks about his company's precast modular pavement as one would a wunderkind kid brother.
"If you go out there looking for them, you're not going to find them because they're so smooth and so quiet," a beaming Sylvester says of the two 6-by-12-foot slabs.
If drivers haven't noticed Sylvester's road work, they may soon. Sylvester believes that old methods of paving roads with wet concrete and asphalt should be retired and that cities and states should adopt his prefabricated concrete sections that, in effect, tile traffic lanes.
Sylvester says his slabs offer a faster, longer-lasting option for repairing deteriorating roads and provide easy access to underground utilities. Road crews can pry up a damaged section and replace it, rather than repaving the damaged area. Sylvester says his chunks of pavement last from two to four times longer than traditional concrete and asphalt, and the easier installations mean shorter road closures.
In September, Sylvester approached the Kansas Department of Transportation about testing his road-repair system. KDOT agreed to pay for a road crew if Sylvester brought the concrete.
Sylvester jumped on the opportunity to demonstrate his unproven concept. Despite the crew's inexperience with the material, they easily pulled off the replacement, Sylvester says, cutting away a piece of road big enough for the prefabricated slab and lowering it in.
"I literally gave the crew no direction at all," Sylvester says as a video of the installation plays on a laptop in his office in a University of Missouri–Kansas City building. "They knew that they were going to pick it up off the truck and drop it in."
In five minutes, the first slab was placed. There was an initial hiccup: The concrete had to be removed so that the bottom of the hole could be leveled. The job was done in 45 minutes.
"The second one [installation] took 20 minutes, but the actual installation to get it in the space went from five minutes to one minute," Sylvester says.
A couple of hours after the work was completed, the lane reopened to traffic (a problem with a grout pump slowed down the finish). Sylvester estimates that the old way of repaving the same section of road would have taken between four and 12 hours longer. Integrated Roadways' concrete could be ready for traffic in 45 minutes.
Sylvester is looking for more opportunities to show off Integrated Roadways' pavement. His next chance: 5,000 square feet of parking lot at the AMC 30 movie theater in Olathe. Then Sylvester will get a shot at using his precast pavement for the parking lot of UMKC's new Bloch Executive Hall.
Since Sylvester started working full time on Integrated Roadways in February, he has made one major change to his business model. Realizing that state agencies and municipalities are unwilling to pay more money for an unknown, if better, product, Sylvester needed to find a way to make his young company financially palatable. The solution: customer financing.
Sylvester says he and a partner (a real-estate developer whom he would not name) plan to offer long-term financing to cities and private-property owners.
"That gives us the ability to motivate private investors for public-works projects, which is huge," he says. "I mean, public-works projects are so friggin' underfunded."
Sylvester believes he can convince cities that it's worth taking on more nonbond debt to improve their roads.
"Kansas City spends $8 million a year on infrastructure," Sylvester says. "The Federal Highway Administration says Kansas City should spend $30 million a year. Well, where are they going to get that money?"
Google Fiber also presents an opportunity for Integrated Roadways. Sylvester envisions sensors embedded in slabs that can detect traffic speed, potholes and traffic information. Road problems could be quickly solved. The future of modular roads could also include heating systems to melt road ice, charge electric cars as they drive and guide self-driving cars. Sylvester admits, however, that Integrated Roadways has a long way to go before his vision of road revolution can get under way.
The present takes precedence over the future for now, so Sylvester is focusing on the three projects he has lined up.
"I've met with a dozen municipalities that have said, 'Tim, we love the technology, we love your vision, we love everything about this, but we cannot contract with you for a $1 million project if we can't go look at what you've already done,' " he says. "Until these demos, these showcases are completed, I'm a guy in a room talking about how cool it's going to be."