Big trucks, hot asphalt: behind the scenes with a road crew
As fall begins, another season comes to an end – the season of road patching. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.
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.
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]
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: 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.