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Big trucks, hot asphalt: behind the scenes with a road crew

A dump truck deposits the steaming asphalt on a patching project in Harrisonburg.
Randi B. Hagi
A dump truck deposits the steaming asphalt on a patching project in Harrisonburg.

As fall begins, another season comes to an end – the season of road patching. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[equipment sounds]

On a recent morning in southeast Harrisonburg – between the wood's edge and a renovated farmhouse, Apple Valley Road was down to one lane while a maintenance crew from VDOT – that's the Virginia Department of Transportation – was busy at work. This is a common enough scene, but there's a lot more that goes into road work than the average person may realize.

GARY VIA: These are bad spots, and we're trying to level them up.

Gary Via is the superintendent of VDOT's Mount Crawford Area Headquarters.

WMRA's Randi B. Hagi interviewing Gary Via at the jobsite.
Ken Slack
WMRA's Randi B. Hagi interviewing Gary Via at the jobsite.

VIA: So when we do get the paver in here, it's kind of like if you've got a hole in your drywall at the house, you can't just paint over that. You've got to spackle it or do some work. That's what we're doing here – we're filling things up, getting them level. Of course, on our routes, we want a crown in the road to get the water off the road to the ditch line. So it's a lot of things going on here.

Via and his crew are responsible for maintaining 384 linear miles of roads within a long rectangle bounded by routes 33 and 276 and the Augusta County and West Virginia borders.

VIA: Every route, interstate, primary, secondaries, dirt roads.

He walked me through the basic steps of the project in front of us.

VIA: Here comes the distributor. [truck beeping] This puts the tack down. It's the tar coat that goes underneath of this, so the asphalt will adhere to the road.

Then comes the asphalt.

VIA: This time of the year, this is cool for asphalt, because we need it hot to keep the asphalt hot, because it cools off so quick. … He's dumping now, and you can see the smoke coming off of it.

The asphalt gets dumped onto the road at a sizzling 380 degrees.

[asphalt sizzling and crackling]

Don Minnick operates a roller to compact and smooth the asphalt.
Randi B. Hagi
Don Minnick operates a roller to compact and smooth the asphalt.

An operator on the ground will level out any major bumps with a lute rake. Then comes the grader – which looks like a giant tractor with a low, long blade that smooths out the asphalt. Finally, a roller drives along and tamps down the surface.

[roller drums vibrating]

Road maintenance goes well beyond patching, too. I would say their operators are jacks of all trades – except they really have to be masters of many skills.

VIA: We're mowing. We pick up trash, deceased animals on the road. We do ditching operations, keeping the ditching and the pipes open. … And then of course we get called out for emergencies. Accidents, road closures, trees down, flooding, we have to come out and shut roads down, assess the damage. … Then we get some work orders, concerns from citizens, you know, "we've got a pothole here."

And winter is coming up, so during winter storms, these folks are the ones who plow the roads for the rest of us – working in 12-hour shifts around the clock until everything's clear.

VIA: We have eight trucks at Mt. Crawford. They're going to be on the interstate and the primary system. … Now, that means some of the county roads might be getting pretty tough, so we'll bring in some of those hired hands – trucks, farm tractors, we've got all kinds of stuff – they come out and they help us.

Crew Supervisor Stacey Michael oversees the night shift snow plows.

Stacey Michael mans the lute rake.
Randi B. Hagi
Stacey Michael mans the lute rake.

STACEY MICHAEL: It's always colder at night. You don't have the sun to help you. It's a real challenge. Then, you're tired – you're grouchy, I'll say it! It's tough sometimes, yeah. And like Gary said, we've got a lot of roads to cover and a lot of people to try to keep happy, so it stresses you out, there's no doubt about it.

Then, the rest of the year –

MICHAEL: I usually go out with the guys, and I try to work hand in hand with them, I mean I try to lead by example. We just finished what they call a Rural Rustic project. I'm usually the lead on that, but I do still run the equipment.

They do one Rural Rustic project per year – that's where they pave a gravel road within their jurisdiction. I asked Michael if working out in the heat ever bothered him.

MICHAEL: No, I mean, I grew up on a farm. … It gets very hot, and this stuff's like 350 degrees. You take a 90 or 100 degree day, yeah, it gets pretty bad, but it comes with the territory, I guess.

Michael and Via supervise 14 operators at the Mount Crawford Headquarters. New employees start out as flaggers – the folks holding the two-sided slow/stop signs on either end of a work site. Via himself began there, with the Verona bridge crew, years ago. Despite it being the newcomer's position, he said it's crucial to their work.

VIA: I would say traffic control is our biggest challenge these days. Most of the people are good. Some of them aren't. They have no patience to be stopped. … If we don't have traffic control, we can't come out on the road. … Everybody in here is trusting them to keep people where they need to be coming through our work zone to keep us safe.

So, a reminder to respect those road workers with safety signs. Next up on their never-ending docket is brush control season.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.