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New ways to fix old roads

This is a machine the city is renting to seal cracks in roads to keep them from deteriorating.

Janelle Wetzstein/Argus-Courier Staff
Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012 at 8:57 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 4, 2012 at 8:57 a.m.

As the city of Petaluma has seen a continued decrease in funding for road repair, the Public Works Department has begun to adopt alternate strategies for tackling the city's serious road maintenance problems.

Starting this week, Public Works employees began a “crack-sealing” program designed to prevent roads that are in moderate shape from deteriorating further.

“Crack sealing is the first step in protecting pavement against mother nature,” says Public Works Director Dan St. John. “Our crews have not done this in a long time. I was surprised to hear that the city has not been doing crack sealing because in the public works industry, it is known as the first line of defense for roads,” said St. John, who began working for the city on Jan. 31.

The crack-sealing work that started Monday on East Washington Street, between Sonoma Mountain Parkway and North McDowell Boulevard, consists of filling each crack in the pavement with sand and adding a rubberized heated seal to close up the gaps in the pavement. Only small pavement cracks qualify for the treatment because if the cracks are too large the sealant won't close the pavement. St. John said that the next step to keep ing sealed roads fixed is to apply a second sealant — called a microseal — on top of first, to ensure that the cracks in the road do not break open.

“The normal prescription in taking care of a road with a lot of cracks is to crack seal it, patch any potholes and then microseal the entire road,” said St. John. “We will be doing some microsealing in the spring, but our budget isn't enough to do everything we need.”

In fact, purchasing the equipment necessary to perform crack sealing is not even an option for the city under its current budget constraints. So St. John suggested an alternative: rent the equipment instead of buying it.

“The equipment itself is around $5,000 to rent for a month,” said St. John. “Typically, it costs $60,000 to $70,000 to buy the machine. But we think we only need it for two months a year. While budgets are tight, it's a good way to preserve our roads without breaking the bank.”

All four members of Petaluma's road crew will be working on the crack-sealing project every day, for the entire month of October — unless they get called off to handle downed trees, car accidents, hazmat calls or any of the other numerous duties.

“We have a team of four guys to cover the city's almost 175 miles of center-lined roads,” said Public Works and Utilities Roads Supervisor Mike Ielmorini. “The guys are really good at their jobs, but there are so few of them that it makes it difficult to get everything done.”

The 2009-2010 city budget allowed for 15 road and sign crew positions. But due to budget cuts, the city currently has only eight people working on their crews.

Ielmorini said that the crew is planning on sealing portions of I Street, Turtle Creek Avenue, Bodega Avenue and Caulfield Lane.

“We're only working on this project and emergency projects for the rest of this month,” Ielmorini said. “But sometimes there are so many emergencies that we can't get to streets. At least the sealing goes quickly and the guys will get faster as they do more of it.”

But the project is not without its risks. Like many Public Works and Utilities efforts, the job is dangerous. As the crew sealed East Washington Street Monday morning, cars whizzed by. Some slowed, but most shot past the working crew. At one point, a speeding car blazed through five cones the workers had placed on the street to close off the lane the crew was repairing.

As Ielmorini told a worker to replace the cones, only one lane of traffic stopped, while cars traveling in the opposite direction continued to speed by the road crew worker, who remained momentarily stuck in the middle of the road after straightening the cones.

“We get profanity screamed at us regularly, people not slowing down to pass us, people yelling at us for not fixing things fast enough,” said Ielmorini through a smile. “You develop thick skin in this job.”

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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