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September 23, 2011


Like a Troubled Bridge Over Water

by drivingfarce

Several years ago, I made a frightening discovery while on a run near my parents’ home. Fortunately, no one had been robbed, nor was there any need to call the coroner. This was far worse. Two of the roads that I took to get to their home from the highway were in terrible shape, broken and crumbling from years of neglect. This was not the discovery, but a harsh reminder of the real tragedy: these two roads had never been repaved since I was born. Without getting into too much gruesome detail, I will just say that meant a very long time indeed: decades (several).

It was always harsh to drive over these roads. The winter cycling above and below the freezing point that makes our soil so easy to turn in the spring also wreaks havoc with pavement. Potholes and frost heaves are the result and, in fact, the norm for most of the Northeastern U.S. In Lancaster County, we also have the moving chicane known as the horse & buggy. Outsiders view them as simple and majestic, but they don’t take into account the havoc the carbide embedded in the steel shoes does to the road surface. The middle of each lane is often marred by deep troughs running the length of the road. It is only when riding motorcycle, bicycling, or in this case, running, that it becomes shockingly evident just how bad these roads were getting; you tend to notice these things when you’re more vulnerable to the elements. The potholes were deep enough to extend through the pavement and past the sub-base of coarse stones into the dirt beneath. While not wide enough to swallow a car tire, they could do some serious damage to a bicycle wheel. Or engulf a whole running shoe, and perhaps a whole runner. As I continued to run my course, fearing for my ankles, I pondered just how bad the Highway Department would allow these roads to deteriorate before slothing to action in an effort to repair them.
Thankfully, this is no longer the case. PENNDOT has gotten a bee under their collective bonnet (hardhat?) and they seem to be trying to fix nearly everything in sight. Unfortunately, years of neglect has resulted in a near-crisis mode around much of the commonwealth. It seems wherever you turn there is some sort of construction being done or resurfacing work tying up traffic. New byways and bypasses are being brought into this world. Roads that once were moonscapes of broken tarmac are now black ribbons of velvety-smooth asphalt. (Velvety-smooth is a relative term, in this case. I have had numerous experiences of sliding across it at speed. It isn’t exactly silky.) Or at least they were.

It never ceases to frustrate me when a beautiful apron of tarmac is laid down and rolled to near-perfection, only to be torn up weeks later to run a new water line through the street. The smoothness of the road lasts for days, to be replaced by cross-cuts and poor seams that will break up the new road far faster than it would if the surface was left intact as a big black ribbon of sealant. Perhaps this is only occurs in Pennsylvania? Regardless, I want to pull my hair out every time I see this happening. (I say want to, for I cannot.) And it seems to happen a lot. Do municipalities not talk to one another? Does the state suddenly show up one day and start paving? I highly doubt it. (Though the local township did pull that one on us one time. “Good morning! We are here to pave your road. Move your cars.”) For some reason I thought this is what County and State Planning Commissions are for : to offer oversight and provide a clear progression of infrastructure; to offer a bridge between public and private sectors.

Other bridges in our commonwealth are also in a sorry state of affairs. Neglected paint and surface sealants have allowed the structures to break down and weaken to a dangerous level, according to recent inspection reports. Yet, even in their sad condition, they held up like true (passive) warriors against recent floods, the worst levels I have witnessed in my lifetime. I have a new found respect for the civil engineers and fabricators that tamed these spans of torrents. However, these steel and concrete fortresses (and a fair amount of wooden ones in this county) are in need of updating in a bad way. Now that calamity is imminent, bridges are being repaired or replaced with near reckless abandon. For instance, if I wanted to travel home from the shining beacon of culture that is Lancaster City, I used to be able to choose one of three direct ways. I am now down to one path and I find it incredibly frustrating to be locked into one option when setting out toward a destination.

Covered Bridge standing firm. Millway, PA

I don’t want to sound ungrateful for all of this work; inconvenienced, yes. I am actually quite pleased to see progress being made on these long-overdue projects; I just wish they would not all be done at once. It feels like they may be overextending their skill-level; like a proctologist offering a free lobotomy with every screening. As I travel a newly reworked area I find myself marveling at the engineering and skills required to complete such a task. (I speak of the actual engineers; not to shortchange any proctological readers.)

I am reminded of the major rework around the local airport. Rough country lanes with dangerous intersections have been transformed into beautiful long sweepers that offer a rider of a motorcycle a very satisfying time. The radii are so uniform that you simply enter the corner, flick the bars and let the bike hold that same line for about ¼ mile at a shot. These magnificent marvels of geometry eventually flow into open traffic circles. Traffic circles!! They are such a brilliant concept they nearly cause me to weep with joy. Seamless intersections with excellent sight lines that allow traffic to keep moving, promoting efficient use of time and resources: now that is progress!

Still, the pains associated with seeing these projects of progress midway through their gestation period can be almost more than one can bear. Earlier this year, with bridgework blocking one direction and a paving crew obstructing a second, I decided to try an alternate path; a new way to freedom. This liberty was short-lived, however, as I found myself blocked by storm drain replacement at the very next intersection. Turning around and heading back from where I came, I saw another line of traffic stopped a short distance away by a crew repairing a sewage line. Four paths, four dead-ends. I was a prisoner under house arrest, sentenced to 2-4 hours. I’m just glad I wasn’t giving birth.

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