In a Rut 

While some city pothole crews work hard, others waste away the day on the taxpayer dime

On a sunny day in May, a city of Tucson street maintenance truck sat in the shade cast by a long row of trees on the south side of Palo Verde Park, located near Broadway Boulevard and Wilmot Road. Over the next hour, two municipal pickups parked nearby. The drivers of these vehicles--the supposed front-line soldiers in the never-ending battle to keep Tucson's streets in good shape--were obviously not helping to fix potholes that afternoon.

Street maintenance employees are also reported to frequently gather at a restaurant near Craycroft Road and 29th Street. While they breakfast inside, traffic drives down a thoroughfare disfigured by a long, jagged cut in the pavement outside.

Despite having an endless supply of potholes to fill, numerous mounds of unused asphalt covered with dirt were recently found scattered across a vacant lot along Irvington Road near Pantano Road. Strategically dumped behind a huge pile of street-sweeping remains, it appeared as if an effort had been made to hide the material from public view.

That isn't the only way unused asphalt intended for Tucson's potholes is disposed of. Two weeks ago, at the request of an eastside resident, one city street crew installed a ramp for him to cut down the grade of his driveway's roll-curb.

Based on episodes like these, local street workers are barraged by a steady stream of either compliments or expletives from citizens. "Lazy!" is one of the milder insults hurled at them as they work on fixing Tucson's streets.

While some street maintenance workers may fit that description, most don't. Today, there are 10 crews responsible for keeping Tucson's 1,700 miles of roadways in good shape. With better equipment than in the past, the city has--in the last 10 months--already used 36 percent more asphalt in the pursuit of smoother streets than it did in the previous fiscal year.

But a decrease in personnel and money, combined with the frequent use of improper materials, seems to have brought Tucson's struggle to fix its ever growing pothole problem to an impasse. (See "Pothole Predicament," November 27, 2003).

Plus, crews perform tasks in addition to pothole plugging. They crack-seal streets with oil, sometimes totally overlay them with asphalt, pick up material collected by street sweepers and do other odd jobs.

Pothole filling is also problematic for these crews because of the characteristics of asphalt. It has to be around 225 degrees when applied to be most effective, and the city has only two suppliers, both located far from the city center. So while the driver of a small asphalt truck goes to pick up a typical day's allotment of one to three tons of hot material, a process which can easily take two hours, the rest of the crew is supposed to be doing other jobs, such as collecting debris from the street right of way. But occasionally, some of them go for breakfast instead.

The time needed to obtain the asphalt isn't the only difficulty facing a street maintenance crew. The right type of material often isn't available from the suppliers, so an inferior product sometimes has to be substituted. Also, paving material must be kept at the proper temperature, and the city doesn't have "hot boxes" on all of its asphalt trucks, which means the material has to be used rapidly, or wasted.

A similar problem surfaced recently on south Country Club Road near Valencia Road. A new asphalt overlay was placed on the street in November, but some of it was not as hot as it should have been. Thus, the pavement developed air voids and deteriorated quickly. A few weeks ago, a street crew was out patching the new pavement with little hope of actually correcting the problem.

Even though they start their day at 6 a.m. by checking over their equipment and getting work orders, because of the delay caused by obtaining the needed asphalt, it will be three hours or more before a street crew is actually ready to begin filling potholes. When they do, one person directs traffic around the slow-moving operation; another drives the asphalt truck and dumps material where it is needed, while two crew members oil the pavement, shovel and rake the steaming material into place, then compact it with a 800-pound motorized roller.

Their job may appear relatively simple, but each crew member must possess a commercial driver's license and be able to handle heavy equipment. They also need to know how to keep that complex, oily machinery in working condition.

By noon or so, a crew finishes its pothole-fixing work for the day and eats lunch. After that, they may inspect and repair their equipment in the field, and some of them may go to Palo Verde Park to take it easy. They drive back to a city shop, and by 2:30 p.m., many of the crew members are heading home.

The results of their labor are seen in pavement patches all over town, but many people aren't satisfied, including some who work for the city. As one street maintenance crew member says, "We need more preventative maintenance. We don't seal coat (streets) anymore. We stopped for budgetary reasons apparently. We need to get back to preventative maintenance."

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