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A hard-to-miss van just might be the closest thing to a road doctor you're going to find.

They call it the Road Rater, a DOT van wired in the back with cameras and lasers that take detailed pictures of road surfaces. More lasers up front can actually measure road roughness.

Every year, usually during the summer, the van hits the road, traversing some 18,000 miles of state-owned pavement and documenting nearly every nook and cranny - especially the bumpy spots.

Then, during the winter months, all those images are analyzed on computers.

That information is compiled over time, helping the state put together a health report for each stretch of road.

The information is used then to help us prioritize where we're going to spend money on the roads, said Dave Luhr, WSDOT Pavement Management.

Perhaps no road needs more TLC than Interstate 5. The popular freeway's life span was supposed to be 20 or 30 years. The interstate is now pushing age 50.

But Department of Transportation state pavement engineer Jeff Uhlmeyer knows total replacement would be too expensive, so they're in triage mode.

Basically, we try to repair the worst of the worst concrete sections, said Uhlmeyer.

Starting Wednesday night, that brings crews to a long stretch of southbound I-5 between Northgate and State Route 520 in Seattle.

Around Seattle's University District, they'll replace 31 broken concrete panels and use diamond grinding to smooth the pavement - at least, for now.

Right now we're figuring we can triage once -- depending on the fix -- maybe twice, but eventually you're going to have to reconstruct the roadway.

Until that happens, the Road Rater van is the best tool they've got to diagnose their most vital pavement needs.

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