Patching Pitted Streets

A task without end 


By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |   
February 11, 2009
Some are small gouges the size of a boot, and others look like sinkholes nearly large enough to swallow a car. Across the city, cratered roads have made driving feel like navigating a minefield, where one unlucky turn could easily destroy a tire or worse.
It falls to city employees like Joe Ronca and Malcolm Steadman to patch up Boston's crumbling pavement.
Nearly every day now, the men start at 6 a.m. by collecting 2 tons of steaming asphalt and heading for the streets that have received the most complaints. The tar-covered duo, one of the city's 10 pothole squads, have been patching craters together for 21 years, but they do not complain about the Sisyphean task of having to repair the same roads again and again.
"It gives us job security," Ronca joked.
So far this fiscal year, the city has spent $94,000 on more than 3 million pounds of asphalt to plug potholes, a 20 percent rise over last fiscal year and an 80 percent increase over fiscal 2007.
And the hardest work is only starting, as winter's deep freeze gives way to more frequent thaws.
As the cycle of melting, refreezing, and cracking of fresh asphalt accelerates, Ronca, Steadman, and the other crews first respond to complaints called into the city's hotline. After they have worked through the list, they fan out to repair any rutted roads they find in their assigned districts.
Their work never seems to end, especially this week, after the weekend's temperature seesawed from a low of 16 degrees on Saturday to a high of 51 degrees on Sunday to a low of 25 degrees Monday morning.
John Dooley has seen the worst of broken roads, but after 25 years in the business of patching potholes, he has not experienced a more trying season.
"It's horrible," said Dooley, an assistant superintendent in the Department of Public Works and Transportation who oversees the city's pothole crews. "I can't remember it being worse."
Over the last three fiscal years, the city has patched on average nearly 45,000 potholes, most between February and May. The city has not completed statistics for this fiscal year.
"You have to stay on top of it," said Dennis Royer, the city's public works and transportation chief, noting that an inch-wide crack can grow as much as 2 feet overnight. "If you don't take care of them right away, they grow, they multiply, very quickly. We try to get them when they're small."
Of course, the weather tends to move more quickly than the department, and Ronca, 68, and Steadman, 46, often feel as if they are trying to plug leaks in a never-ending flood. But city officials said their teams do their best to respond to drivers' complaints. Last week, crews repaired all but two of the 80 potholes they had been alerted about.
The pavers' tools are simple: shovels, rakes, and a dump truck filled with tons of a pungent, 360-degree asphalt that often drips off the back of the tilting flatbed and can easily singe exposed skin. "You don't want to step in it," advises Ronca, whose boots are stained and sprinkled with fresh asphalt. "It will melt your shoes."
Rolling up the blackened sleeves of his gray sweatshirt, Steadman showed the risks of getting burned. "It's hot," he says. "If it gets on you, you have to go to the hospital. It hardens, and if you peel it off, it takes off seven layers of skin. That doesn't feel good."
In addition to a strong back and an immunity to acrid fumes, the job also requires a tolerance for less-than-amiable drivers. Unlike other city workers who do their jobs in the street, the pavers rarely stay in the same place for long and often work without the benefit of traffic cones. They move quickly, their truck moving slowly along long stretches of pavement. And they try to ignore the beeping and other taunts from the traffic as they shovel asphalt off the truck and onto the street.
On a recent afternoon in South Boston, as scores of cars and trucks maneuvered around them on A Street, the men in neon-colored vests exhibited their skill. In less than an hour, they covered about a quarter mile of the pitted road, filling about 50 potholes.
But even though they were applying a permanent patch - on colder days, they use a different mix of asphalt, designed to last only a few weeks - they did not expect it to last long. "If there's more snow in the next few days, we'll probably be back here in a week," Steadman said.
On a typical day now, the crew uses about 8,000 pounds of asphalt to fill hundreds of potholes.
It is back-stressing work, even for younger men, but Ronca said he enjoys it. "You don't think about; you just keep moving," he says. "It comes naturally."
After working together for so long, the pair know each other's strengths. Ronca leaves most of the raking to Steadman, because the raking hurts Ronca's chest. They take turns tamping down the piles of fill, which take about 10 minutes to dry and are further smoothed by passing traffic.
The crew can fill a bowling ball-sized pothole in less than a minute. They just drop down the asphalt, rake it into the crevices, and tamp it down. But some holes are more of a challenge. After a recent water main break in South Boston, they said it took them nearly an hour to pack in the 500 pounds of asphalt needed to fill the resulting crater.
"The newer the streets, and where there's less traffic, there isn't as much of a problem," said Steadman, adding that newly paved streets often last more than five years without yielding to potholes.
Their other partner, William Tatseos, 66, drives the truck and follows their instructions to move forward, backward, and to raise or lower the flatbed. Asked why he gets to sit in the heated truck, he said: "I'm too old to give them a hand."
Reminded that he is two years younger than Ronca, he demurred, saying. "But they're really good at what they do."
From behind him, Ronca and Steadman called for Tatseos to move forward. Then they turned on to another pockmarked street in need of their care.
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.