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  5. Qatar looks to Wisconsin for asphalt expertise

Qatar looks to Wisconsin for asphalt expertise

A screenshot of the software the many partners in Qatar's road-building project use to track progress and quality-control results.

The small but wealthy nation of Qatar is on course to build an entirely new transportation infrastructure in less than a decade. But to make sure its swiftly growing network of roads can withstand the extreme climate conditions of the Arab Peninsula, Qatar is looking to Wisconsin. 

Two years ago the project’s managers recruited Hussain Bahia, the Vilas Distinguished Professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and head of the renowned UW-Madison Modified Asphalt Research Center (MARC), to develop specifications and quality checks for the asphalt that will surface Qatar’s roads. Bahia realized that he was in for a challenge early on, when he talked to a contractor who had only nine months to build 30 miles of four-lane road. The contractor didn’t believe it when Bahia told him that road-building projects in America often stretch out for years.

“It’s not the amount—it’s how quickly they’re trying to build this,” Bahia says. “For me it’s quite the learning experience, because this is a country trying to develop a new specification, and they’re trying to implement it immediately.”

While Qatar is only about two-thirds as large as Wisconsin, the country essentially is trying to go from virtually no road network to a fully developed infrastructure by 2022, the year in which the country is slated to host the World Cup. As new roads go in, they’ll have to hold up under temperatures that can exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and they’ll immediately take a beating from heavy construction traffic on its way to build more roads. Bahia says that the materials and specifications that Americans would ordinarily use for, say, special mining roads, will simply be the norm in Qatar. Adding to the technical challenges, Qatar doesn’t produce much of the raw material of asphalt locally, so Bahia has to ensure that material from potentially many different countries turns into a product that adheres to a uniform standard.

The project brings together engineering and road-building firms from Italy, South Africa, Korea, and the United Kingdom, each of them bringing their own backgrounds and influences based on different technical standards from around the world—and it’s Bahia’s job to get them all on the same page, making his work as much diplomatic as it is technical. While Bahia doesn’t look down on asphalt standards from other countries, he wants to make sure everyone on the project is working with something coherent, not a hodge-podge of different standards. 

“Consultants and contractors are trying to absorb and understand a lot of very new technical information,” says Nicola Chiara, project manager for Italian road-engineering firm ANAS, the main contractor for the project. In such a demanding environment, Chiara points out, it’s very helpful that Bahia is used to leading teams of specialized engineers, and that he understands the local language and customs. On the technical side, Chiara says, Bahia’s experience with using polymers to enhance the durability of asphalt comes in especially handy, since such modifications will be used in almost all of Qatar’s new roads. 

As the project progresses, Bahia and his MARC team will learn even more about how to build roads in demanding climates, and how to implement relatively new technical concepts on a large scale. All the different organizations involved in building Qatar’s roads are feeding data into software that monitors the quality of the work relative to the standards Bahia is developing. And the Qatar experience is already spreading the renown of MARC throughout the region: Transportation officials from Oman and Saudi Arabia recently have contacted Bahia to get his input on how they might improve their own standards for asphalt-surfaced roads. Chiara adds that firms like his will end up learning a great deal about how to build roads on a tighter schedule, and how to incorporate and implement new technical information more quickly—which involves risk, but also potentially great rewards.

“Everyone knows that the first step in improving the quality of your roads is improving your standards of quality,” Bahia says. “The standards of quality are not easy to change overnight, and therefore other countries are trying to learn from this experience in Qatar.”

Scott Gordon