A Conversation with Judith Corley-Lay

Judith Corley-Lay, Director of NCPP

Author: Lorella Angelini, Angelini Consulting Services, LLC

In April 2017 Judith Corley-Lay took the leadership of the National Center for Pavement Preservation team thus succeeding to Larry Galehouse after his retirement.  Judith comes to NCPP and TSP2 with an impressive track record.

She started her career teaching Civil Engineering at the University of Texas in Arlington focusing on geotechnical engineering, contactor specifications and engineering economics. After several years with the University of Texas, she joined Texas A&M (Agricultural and Military) where she thought for two years and was also appointed to the staff of the A&M Transportation Institute. When her husband took a position at the University of North Carolina, she relocated to North Carolina, where she started working in the pavement management unit at North Carolina DOT (NCDOT).  For 26 years, up until her retirement in September 2016, she developed an extensive knowledge of pavements, including design, data analysis, field data collection, and pavement management systems.

When Larry Galehouse left the National Center for Pavement Preservation (NCPP), she decided to step out of retirement and apply for his position. She is now employed by Michigan State University (MSU), working from North Carolina where her family lives.   When I asked her about the decision to apply for the position as Director of NCPP, she told that it came from the realization of the great value of the TSP2 Partnerships, her desire to continue their activity and contribute to their success. In her work at NCDOT she has had first-hand interaction with the South-East Pavement Preservation Partnership (SEPPP) that brought her a huge amount of benefit.

Can you speak of the challenges of continuing the job started by Larry Galehouse?

When you are taking over from somebody like Larry, who had led an organization from the beginning, it is a daunting task. While I know a lot about pavement preservation, I am putting a lot of emphasis on becoming knowledgeable in the areas of bridge preservation and equipment management. For this reason I made the commitment to attend every Partnership meeting for at least first year. This allows me to learn first-hand about how the different groups work.  

Michigan State asked me to increase the research activity for bridges, pavements and also equipment. In collaboration with John Hooks, who is an excellent writer and editor, we wrote a proposal for accelerated bridge preservation for Michigan DOT. The proposal was accepted. This, was really good because (NCPP) had not had any research for Michigan DOT in several years.

One of the complications of my job is that you really have to balance the activities the Partnership focuses on with the activities from the University and the Oversight Panel. These activities are not always coincident.

What can you tell about the activity from the Oversight Panel?

The Oversight Panel is chaired by George Conner from Mississippi DOT, who is also the chair of SCOM, Sub-committee on Maintenance. The Oversight Panel represents AASHTO in overseeing the TSP2 program by NCPP. We answer to AASHTO that legitimately wants to know how expenditures into the program are being used.

During the last session the TSP2 Committee came up with the idea of funding small research projects with the Partnerships. While half of TSP2 excess balance is used for future operations, TSP2 wants to spend the other half on operations related to activities through the Partnerships. We are going to ask the Partnerships to submit research ideas. Then a few of these ideas will be chosen and funded to the level of contribution already submitted by the States.

Excess fund comes from the States’ voluntary contributions to TSP2. These contributions fund two people to come to the regional Partnership meetings for both pavement and bridge preservation. A little carries forward every year thus building up an excess fund that we want to spend down doing research for the Partnerships.

NCPP is a Center at MSU. I have an appointment to the faculty of MSU even though I do not teach. NCPP is under contract with AASHTO to manage the TSP2 program, which includes all of the Partnerships for both pavement and bridge preservation. That is how everything is linked. One of the reasons NCPP was chosen by AASHTO is its ability to develop good relationships between the vending community and the Agencies.

TSP2 has indeed created a strong dialogue between state DOTs and vendors that was almost unthinkable some time ago. Could you comment about it?

TSP2 has been successful and innovative in establishing a relationship between Agencies and vendors, such as manufacturers, contractors and consultants.

Partnership meetings are set up with specific guidelines about the conversation cannot be about any project up for bid. This fundamental rule makes it possible for State agencies to talk with the vending community and have a really good conversation. You hear people talking: “What about this type of application?” or “I tried this, I had this problem, what do you suggest?” These conversations could not take place if they were related to contract projects.

Going back to your TSP2 appointment, could you provide some details about what your job responsibility entails?

I am focusing on three areas. One is overseeing the day by day operations, making sure that routine operations run smoothly. Another area concerns the development research programs, as I explained before. The third focus area, which is very important for me, entails increasing the activity with local Agencies, such as Counties, Municipalities, and Cities.

I recently spoke at the American Public Works Association (APWA) for the North Carolina chapter and at the asset management conference through the Michigan Local Technical Association Program (LTAP) in order to promote the concept of preservation and increase contacts between TSP2 and local Agencies.  

It is important to promote the preservation message. We should underscore the advantages that preservation brings to the community starting from tax dollars savings, especially in the long-term.

Spreading the preservation message also keeps the new leadership at state and local Agencies informed and knowledgeable about preservation. Agencies turn over leaderships every 4 years on average, which means that they are always in a training mode at some level.

What is your vision for bridge preservation?

Agencies must move beyond the Structurally Deficient (SD) bridge concept as they define their plan of action. If Agencies only focus on repairing or replacing SD bridges, there will likely be a huge wave of bridges moving from fair conditions to SD in the near future.  

Unfortunately, the MAP-21 legislation retained and amplified the focus of DOT Agencies on SD bridges since FHWA took SD as the measure for bridge performance in MAP 21 legislation. Definitively, focusing investments solely on SD bridges is not a sound strategy.

I think that focusing on SD bridges also leads the bridge preservation conversation in the wrong direction.

We have a great talent pool in the bridge preservation area. Practitioners are knowledgeable and passionate about their work. They know their inventory and they understand what it takes to keep the inventory working but we cannot give them value as long as SD remains the key topic.

Could you point out key challenges for bridge preservation?

As I said before, MAP 21 and its focus on SD bridges is a challenge. Another significant challenge entails the very large number of retirements that are happening at the state Agencies. Gap in experience is developing not just in the Agencies but also in the contractor community.

After the completion of the Interstate highway expansion in the 90’s, for approximately a 15-year period there was not much hiring. When people in their 60’s with 30 years of experience are now retiring, we replace them with people who have only 15 years of experience. There is a 15-years gap, which is huge in bridge preservation because preservation requires experience. Its knowledge is based on seeing problems and trying solutions. In spite of knowledge sharing at the Partnerships, it is only after a decision is played out in practice that one can know if it was correct or no.

This is not a reflection on the younger generation that is sharp and bright. I have a lot of faith in the younger generation given they have the time to develop some expertise. I am confident they will be able to move the bridge preservation issue to another level.  

What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?

There are two aspects of my work that I find most satisfactory. One is coming to the regional Partnerships meetings and hearing bridge practitioners being so honest about strengths and weaknesses of their program. They are inspiring with their honesty. The other aspect is of course the staff at the NCPP, who are wonderful people I enjoy working with. I respect their level of commitment. They really want everything to be perfect, which makes my job a joy.


APWA North Carolina Chapter

Michigan LTAP 

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