By Gary A. Witte
The morning temperatures pushed past 90 degrees well before lunch. The tar was a scorching 125 degrees so it could be sprayed onto the roadway. And the truckload of asphalt radiated the heat of more than 300 degrees with a lingering smell like burning rubber.
There was plenty of dust, but no shade in the sun-baked work area and no air conditioning available except for inside the trucks. Naturally, no one stayed inside the trucks.
Welcome to the world of Cobb County Department of Transportations Road Maintenance Division.
Its always a challenge every day, Cobb DOT Crew Chief Phil Wallace said as he prepared for his shift. Everything we do is in the middle of the road.
Wallace, who has worked for DOT for more than a decade, said they deal with the daily heat with sunscreen and lots of hydration. One of the first things he does before starting his work truck every morning is fill a cooler with ice water.
We look forward to the fall, Wallace said.
Ongoing hiring restrictions have caused Cobb DOT to perpetually do more with less, leaving a limited number of road crews to juggle a variety of jobs, including patching potholes, mowing medians and clearing the roads during severe winter storms.
(Left) Cobb County Department of Transportation Crew Chief Paul Koehler of Douglasville cuts the the road in preparation to fix a pothole.
(Right) Cobb DOT Truck Driver Jerry Cotton of Villa Rica runs a device to pack down freshly laid asphalt.
Cobb County Department of Transportation Crew Chief Phil Wallace of Powder Springs sprays tar on the road, thereby preparing to level a trucking businesss new driveway with the existing street using additional asphalt. Road maintenance crews handle a variety of responsibilities, including sidewalk repair, pothole filling and keeping roads roads clear during severe winter weather.
While the road crews enlist work-release inmates to help with the labor each day, keeping up with the constant need for repairs is a challenge.
Fred Elrod, the division asphalt supervisor, said when he first started in 1987 the department only had to maintain 500 miles of roads. Now Cobb County crews have to maintain an estimated 2,500 miles of roadways just in the unincorporated areas.
These guys have one of the toughest jobs out here working with this hot material, Elrod said.
Trucks commonly carry tons of the hot mix asphalt, but it can be used up quickly on a large job, such as leveling a businesss new driveway with the street. An all-weather asphalt exists, but is more expensive and only used for emergency repairs.
While the heat is a constant hazard, many of the workers have stories about close calls with traffic and vehicles almost injuring them. This makes setting up a safe work zone a lengthy, but necessary, process. Large warning signs, bright orange cones and reflective vests are all designed to keep drivers from running down DOT crew members.
Even for the smallest hole, youve still got to set a work zone up, Wallace said.
The number of jobs the crews have to complete vary from day to day, meaning they might have two work orders or ten.
If youve got a big job, you could be on it all day long, Wallace said.
And instead of just waiting for work orders, the DOT road crews are encouraged to be proactive and fix any potholes they happen to spot when driving throughout the county.
While some drivers might get frustrated by the presence of road workers, many are unaware of the extensive process required to fix the average pothole. Each hole has to be squared up and dug out, otherwise the patch wont last.
Before the asphalt is laid in, the edges are sealed with liquid tar to prevent moisture from leaking underneath. Workers carry multiple jugs of tar in their trucks and use sprayers to spread it for larger repair jobs.
Its sticky. Its not like water, DOT Crew Chief Paul Koehler said, adding that if you pour it on your boots, youll need new boots. If you arent careful with it, youll get it everywhere you touch.
Repairs and maintenance are their focus. Despite recurring questions by members of the public, the DOT crews dont know when roads will be resurfaced. That work is handled by private contractors hired by the county.
Road improvements from the recently passed Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax are expected to help alleviate some of the workload, but DOT crews can expect their efforts to always be needed.
Koehler, who has worked for DOT for 25 years, said the quality of the repair work and safety are his two most important goals. As they drove away from a neighborhood where his crew just spent the afternoon fixing four potholes, he said he likes to look at the results from the point of view of residents.
If that was your house right there, would you be happy? Koehler said. Thats always my goal.