Around the Highway Dept. Wheel of Reincarnation

Being somewhat a fossil relic brings on many infirmities, but it does have some advantages. So we are occasionally able to say “we’ve seen that tried before” as the town and specifically its highway department goes around what the computer industry calls “the wheel of reincarnation”.

Take for example the tendency for departments to move from a low but new vehicle count, to a high but old vehicle count, and back again. In-house mechanic to outsourced maintenance. Hired plows and calcium chloride application to in-house version of same. The town has “been there and done that” on numerous occasions. We like to think it gets more efficient every time around the wheel, but we’re no longer so sure that strategies that work in the computer industry transfer to highway maintenance.

Take the case of calcium chloride which was initially applied to dirt roads for dust suppression and road stabilization.

When this was initiated under the Road Agent Curt Dunn era, calcium chloride was mixed with water and applied to the roads by hiring the vendors tanker truck specifically designed for the purpose. This was reasonably efficient, as the level of material applied can controlled by the calcium chloride/water ratio, by regulating the water pressure out of the tank, by the speed of the application vehicle, or by various permutations of all of three. The occasional spray nozzle clogging, which then left an unapplied streak in the road, was not a big issue.

Alas, transportation costs increased to the point where hiring of the truck became a significant portion of the budget. The then road agent struggled with how to make this “more efficient”. The town ultimately settled on applying dry calcium chloride utilizing the winter sander bodies. Yet there’s a fly in that ointment as calcium chloride is incredibly reactive and does a pretty good job of rotting metal. So the number of available sanders gradually deteriorated (granted many “wheels of reincarnation” interact and there were also other reasons for the decline).

What happens if the department grades the road one month later? Grading effectively buries and/or churns the surface reseting the clock for yet another bout of dust.

At one point the lack of sanders resulted in us observing town employees in the back of a pickup truck spreading the stuff by hand. Visions of medical liability if one the crew got bounced out of the back of the truck went through our head. The road agent was on vacation, so there was no one to blame (staffing shortage an issue?).

Applying the dry stuff creates issues of timing. The reason calcium chloride works is that it absorbs moisture from the air and it’s really the water that binds the road. But what makes the dry stuff “wet” when nature is not cooperating?

Spreading the dry stuff creates a materials efficiency issue. In a vehicle designed for the purpose, the water spray is pointed down to the road, not into the woods. Even in the current optimized era and fine tuning of spreader speed, much of the dry stuff winds up in the woods (see here).

And finally, calcium chloride is also the magic stuff that melts snow on icy roads. But when it’s applied to dirt roads it’s not too hard to imagine that “spring mud season” happens a bit earlier. Or one can blame global warming. Solution: granite aggregate to stabilize the roads, lots of granite aggregate, lots of expensive granite aggregate… there isn’t much of it in the town sand pit/gunnery range.

Having prior experience, current Mason Road Agent Gary Lizotte has helped the selectmen rediscover “water“.

At the November 17 selectmen’s pre-budget meeting, Mr. Lizotte indicated he is developing a warrant for a slip in tank so that local water can be hauled to the dirt roads and spread there using the same vehicles used to spread sand in winter. This reporter was not able to hear whether the concept was to apply the water to the roads after application of the dry stuff first, or whether there would be inhouse mixing and the tank would again be used to spread the combined wet stuff as done previously by the hired vendor.

However, all will become clear when and if a warrant article surfaces next town meeting.

We do however urge caution. One should keep in mind that water is heavy, calcium chloride is corrosive, tanks, pumps and nozzles fail, and there really is a reason why hiring such a vehicle is expensive. You will probably be told that the town crafting its own is more efficient.

It may be, but we’ve seen this wheel before. We wish Mr. Lizotte well as he goes around it.


In a related and humorous episode, new financial advisory committee member Walter Alford questioned why there are two line items for “paved road restoration”; one in the general budget and one as a special annual warrant. He couldn’t find the line item for “dirt road maintenance”, and is this why the condition of those was so bad? Everybody had a good chuckle.

Yet novice questions are occasionally perceptive and we appreciate Mr. Alford putting his volunteer time where previously his mouth once was. A comment on one of our earlier articles lamented a lack of participation in school affairs, so it’s nice to see a contrary example at the town level.

Maybe they all live on tar roads?

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