Fickle storm stymies night of paving


As motorists drive by in the right lanes on rain-slicked Greenbelt Road, a crew collects orange cones that had been set out to channel traffic during the overnight paving project. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Travelers caught up on cone zones or changing lanes across uneven lines of asphalt often ask why a paving project takes so long. Don’t you just scrape off the old stuff and pour a new layer?

On Monday night, I got part of the answer while watching a road crew set up for a Maryland State Highway Administration paving job in Greenbelt.

Kevin S. Nowak, assistant engineer for the SHA district in the D.C. suburbs, and Dennis Favero, general manager for the F.O. Day paving company, had been studying forecasts for the week. On Sunday, Monday night had looked like a window of opportunity in a week of poor weather conditions. As of 6 p.m. Monday, a continuation of the resurfacing job along Greenbelt Road was a go, with lane paving set to start at 9 p.m.

Shortly before 9, I pulled into a shopping center parking lot, and took a few pictures of a white truck full of orange cones in the road just west of the Capital Beltway.

As I snapped the pictures, it occurred to me that the crew wasn’t putting down cones. The workers were picking them up.

That didn’t look promising.

About an hour earlier, a storm line had defied the weather odds for the evening by sweeping through this part of Prince George’s County. The storm moved out quickly, but it’s timing was perfect. If the rain had fallen earlier or later, the night’s work could have proceeded.

After blocking off the work lanes, the workers would have to clear any debris from the surface, then put down a coating of tack, a sticky liquid that promotes bonding with the layer of asphalt that more than a dozen trucks were to spread on top of it.

But the tack can’t do its bonding job if the underlying surface is wet when it’s applied. If the same storm had arrived when the sun was up and traffic was heavier, the roadway might have dried in time. If the storm had come later in the night, after the tack had set, the asphalt laying might have proceeded as planned.

But no. As Nowak and Favero surveyed the lanes in front of the Beltway Plaza Mall, it was clear that the roadway was thoroughly wet and was likely to stay that way for hours. The traffic had lightened, so friction from tires wouldn’t help. And moonlight is not an effective drying agent.

And it was no good to wait a few hours for nature to take its course with the pavement. Nowak and Favero wanted the night’s work to get through the intersection on the west side of the mall. To leave the intersection unfinished would have left potential problems for the next day’s drivers, because of the uneven surfaces. But they faced a deadline: The orange cones would need to come up and the lanes reopened by 5 a.m., in time for the morning rush. If they had waited to resume work at 1 a.m. after sufficient drying, they would have had just a few hours before they had to wrap up and start collecting cones.

This night’s aborted effort was part of a $4.5 million resurfacing project along Greenbelt Road between Rhode Island Avenue and Southway. You could drive the distance in about seven minutes. But each night’s work is a performance involving the coordination of 40 workers, 900 tons of asphalt carried by at least 14 trucks from a plant in Forestville, spreading and rolling equipment, lane stripers — and the weather.

Nowak said he still hopes to make substantial progress before Memorial Day weekend. But as Favero checked some of the nine weather apps he keeps on his smartphone, the prospects were cloudy, if not downright stormy. Heat and humidity combine to create a very unsettled forecast through Friday, the Capital Weather Gang said.

In some ways, Favero said, even paving the Capital Beltway is easier than a job like Greenbelt Road. At least there’s enough traffic to help dry off the lanes.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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