The first thing that hit me as I approached Asheville’s paving crew was the sweet aroma of oranges.
It was a coolish summer morning in West Asheville, and I’d come prepared to choke on asphalt fumes while I watched the crew in action.
Asheville has about 366 miles of streets, and roughly 65 percent of them need help. On this day, the city’s seven-man crew aimed to pave Oakmont Terrace — a narrow, quarter-mile stretch of road located off Johnston Boulevard.
Above the freshly laid asphalt, the air shimmered with heat. I walked up close, feeling as if I’d stumbled into a sauna. That’s when I caught the whiff of oranges. Nearby, Robbie McIntosh drizzled liquid from a gallon container over his asphalt-caked shovel, scraping off the crumbly black stuff. “That’s Enviro 2000,” said Supervisor Jerry Yates. “It’s mostly made from orange peels.”
The paving crew uses it to rinse their shovels and rakes; they also spray it on manhole covers so the asphalt won’t stick when the machine rolls over them. Mostly though, Enviro 2000 masked the hot-oil smell of the asphalt that, by this time, had cooled down to about 250 degrees Fahrenheit, Yates estimated, tapping the stuff with the tip of his boot.
While waiting for a truckload of fresh asphalt to arrive, the crew lounged under trees, wiping their foreheads and sipping water. “Now you know why, when you drive by a paving crew, everybody’s sitting down — to get away from the heat!” Yates explained.
“Oh, it’s cool today,” added Ragle Stinson, who’s worked for the city for 24 years. Gray-haired and craggy of face, he’s known to fellow crew members as “Pappy.” “You ought to be out with us when it’s 95,” continued Stinson. “Two weeks with us — you could throw all your exercise equipment away. You don’t see fat boys on this crew.” Naturally, he teased the much younger Yates for his slight midsection spread.
Yates manned the paving machine — a Blaw-Knox PF-161, to be exact. It’s a big yellow box mounted with a pair of chairs that look like fugitives from a dentist’s office. Those are the hot seats, literally: They hang directly over the asphalt as it’s carried to the rear of the machine by a conveyor belt. Then, the steamy stuff is turned and spread to the side by augers that resemble giant drill bits. Burners further heat the black goo and then push it out onto the street in a 2-inch-deep, 8-foot-wide swath of molten asphalt.
When the asphalt runs low, a dump truck pulls up to the front of the Blaw-Knox and tips its load into a boxlike contraption. Yates pulls a lever, and the sides of the box raise like wings, funneling the asphalt into the center of the machine and onto the conveyor belt.
There, operators “Pappy” and Ellis Griffin control the flow, temperature and depth of the asphalt as it hits the street. They perch on a metal ledge that packs the asphalt down beneath them as the machine crawls forward. Occasionally, they twist around to check the depth laid behind them, grabbing a tool that looks like an oversized dipstick and poking it into the soft asphalt. Two inches. That checks. They lean over the sides of the machine — one on the left, one on the right — watching the edges of the road and adjusting the asphalt flow accordingly.
Behind them, James Ellis shovels extra asphalt into trouble spots and driveway entrances. “Loot men” Terrance Heyward and Thomas Carpenter wield big metal rakes — smoothing the edges of the asphalt, sculpting easy slopes into driveways, and tamping it all down. They could be monks in a Zen garden, scribing artistic patterns in the sand.
“Loots” are what the rakes are called, Pappy explains. “Don’t know why; they’re just rakes,” he declares. The metal tools have stubby teeth on one side, a flat edge for smoothing on the other.
The machine lays asphalt over a manhole, and McIntosh hurries to uncover it. He nearly slips into a gymnast’s split as he lurches from the “cold” side of the road — where one lane of the new asphalt has already set — to the “hot” side. One foot hot, one cold, he quickly digs out the manhole, giving him a place where he can safely stand straight up on both feet. McIntosh, a young man, sports a growth of facial fuzz that doesn’t quite form a beard; the crew has nicknamed him “Little Amish Boy.” Nicknames for other crew members, Yates noted politely, “get a little more personal.”
McIntosh leaps off the manhole and Carpenter leaps on — pirouetting as he moves the loot in a circle around himself, feathering the asphalt till its edges are flush with the top of the manhole.
Then, in the final step, Reed Banks drives the roller over the new surface, smoothing out the creases and the little ridges marking the paving machines’ path down the lane. The drums of his vehicle shimmer with reflections from the water it dispenses to cool things down. In his wake, steam rises from the asphalt, which quickly cools and sets — ready to be driven on.
But walking across it proves sticky, asphalt bits clinging to the soles of my Converse high-tops. Everyone in the crew wears sturdy leather boots — once brown, but now speckled with asphalt. “You don’t wear these home,” notes Yates.
Heyward agrees, tapping bits of asphalt off his boot as he drizzles more Enviro 2000 over it. “It’s a messy job,” he observes.
Messy, yes — but necessary. An independent study by N.C. State University’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education assessed the condition of every foot of Asheville’s streets, putting a price tag of more than $10 million on the needed maintenance and repairs.
Yates points to the recently paved American Way, which feeds into Oakmont Terrace. It used to be one of the worst streets in the neighborhood, Yates explains — the pavement cracked and marbled like old alligator skin, with grass growing in between the cracks. (“Alligatoring” marks one of the last stages in the life of asphalt. Another sign of structural damage is “block” cracking — cracks that run across the road, caused by shrinkage due to temperature changes. Another sign of aging is a color change: Older streets start to turn white as the asphalt is dries and stiffens, making it more susceptible to damage.
Before visiting the street crew, I’d met with Asheville Public Works Director Mark Combs, who explained the aim of the ITRE study: It gives the city information needed to prioritize its street repairs, rating streets on a scale from zero to 100. “Zero — that’s in the miserable range. You’re going to lose your fillings driving down streets rated zero,” noted Combs.
Scores in the mid-80s are the average for North Carolina cities the size of Asheville and larger. Asheville’s average is 74. “We’ve got the worst streets in North Carolina,” Street Superintendent Mark Slaughter complained, pointing to a lengthy list of zero-rated roads that drag Asheville’s average down. They also run up the cost of making needed repairs. Asheville now spends more than $28,000 per mile to fix its roads; that average should be less than $10,000 a mile, Slaughter pointed out.
Why are Asheville’s repair costs so high? Combs gave a frank reply: The city has lacked money for preventive maintenance until this fiscal year, when City Council members approved a 2-cent property-tax increase earmarked for street improvements. Skipping preventive maintenance, explained Combs, is “like never changing the oil on your car.” When a street has passed its prime — 12 to 15 years, typically, for a major thoroughfare such as Merrimon Avenue — repair costs skyrocket. Do the work much sooner, and every dollar spent saves big bucks down the road, he said.
Another reason for Asheville’s high street-repair costs is that the city is still paying the debt service on bond funds borrowed nearly 20 years ago: “Some of the streets [paved or repaired with that money], we’re still paying for, but many of the streets are now deteriorating,” revealed Combs. The city won’t have that debt paid off until 2008.
With this in mind, Combs had advised Council to enact the 2-cent tax hike instead of borrowing more money. The new funds pump approximately $800,000 into street paving, maintenance and repair. For the first time, the city has a budget for preventive maintenance — and more funding for repairs and paving, said Combs.
“This is a long-term commitment by the city to improve the streets,” added Slaughter.
But where there’s money, there’s politics: Over the years, many taxpayers have complained that the bond money wasn’t distributed fairly across the city. Combs still hears talk that the wealthier North Asheville neighborhoods have seemed to get their streets fixed sooner than other areas. To counter that criticism, the ITRE study provides a third-party, objective assessment of street conditions, Combs argued. The list of streets to be paved this year comes directly from the ITRE survey — but with an eye toward spending equal amounts of money north, south, east and west. “We had to divorce ourselves from the political side of [street repairs],” Combs explained.
A paving a day
But try convincing West Asheville resident Dean Martin that politics are really out of the picture. He came out to watch the paving crew the day I hung out with them, remarking, “This is something that’s needed to be done since these houses were built.” His own home, a 1960s-vintage ranch, sits at the intersection of American Way and Oakmont Terrace. Martin, a retired Buncombe County paramedic, harped on his conviction that West Asheville never gets paved — all the work is done in North Asheville. “Why? That’s where the country club is.”
Yates smiled; he hears this all the time. “Actually, we do more paving in West Asheville than anywhere else,” he countered.
Martin surveyed the men at work. He made Yates promise that the pavers would level out a bump of new asphalt that disrupted the entrance to his driveway. While waiting for this to be done, Martin told a tale of helping birth a baby in the middle of Patton Avenue, back when he was a paramedic. The towering fellow admitted to having played basketball in his native McDowell County. He also mentioned that he’s lived in Asheville since 1957. Finally, Martin gave Yates’ crew his stamp of approval: “These men know how to do their job.”
“We get folks coming out to talk to us all the time,” explained Yates, after the chat with Martin.
Yates pointed to all the work the crew has done since July (when the new budget year started): He and his men have paved Asheland Avenue downtown and created bike paths on Lyman Street, for starters. Yates also proudly noted the 5-foot-wide asphalt path his men laid for the first leg of the Weaver Boulevard Greenway, and a walking trail they created in Malvern Hills.
Still, there’s plenty more to do — mainly between the months of April and November. “[The temperature has] got to be at least 40 degrees and rising for us to pave,” said Yates. During the colder parts of the year, Yates’ crew takes on other jobs — ditch work and emergency road repairs, for instance.
The new city budget gives Yates’ crew an extra $100,000 for materials, $250,000 for a preventive-maintenance program and $450,000 for resurfacing jobs that are contracted out. At that level of funding, and given the seasonal constraints, Combs estimated it’ll take the city 10 years to bring its streets up to the state average.
But those aren’t the numbers Yates’ crew likes to play with: On the day I was there, they made a game out of guessing how many truckloads and how many tons of asphalt they’d need for this little stretch of road in West Asheville. In the cool of morning, they were guessing 12 truckloads, maybe 150 tons. But as noon approached and the day warmed up, the estimate was up to 14 loads, pushing 200 tons.
What’s the prize for best guess?
Probably an ice-cold drink.
If you’d like to know whether your street made the list for repaving this fiscal year, call Mark Slaughter at the city’s Public Works Department, 251-1122.