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Paving the way

May 7, 2013

Driving past road work projects on Third and Fourth streets may be an inconvenience, but rest assured it's not exactly a walk in the park for the workers involved, either.

Paving just a small section of one of Big Spring's downtown streets is hot, smelly and exacting work, requiring the use of high-dollar specialized equipment and the labors of more than a dozen workers at a time, all to lay a strip of two-inch deep asphalt the length of a city block.

To the uninitiated, it is chaos incarnate, but in reality, the process requires just as much choreography as a ballet — although, in this case, the “dancers” weigh several tons apiece and are about as graceful as a hail storm.

Like any good production, this one has three acts.

First up is the asphalt truck, delivering several hundred pounds of “hot mix,” a concoction featuring rock, asphalt and tire rubber.

As the truck drives slowly down the street, depositing the hot mix from a hopper, it is followed closely by the “coal cow,” a machine that looks like it was conceived by a roomful of 3-year-olds with Lego blocks. In reality, however, this monstrous-looking marvel collects, heats and smoothly distributes the surfacing material onto the street.

The coal cow proceeds slowly down the street, for a very good reason — its operator, who endures more than his fair share of the heat and smoke belched out by the machine, closely follows surveyor marks to ensure the material is distributed in a straight line and doesn't veer off in odd directions. Several workers walk beside the coal cow, both to help ensure a straight path and to smooth the occasional rough spot.

The caboose of this street-paving train is the “steel wheel” (think steamroller without the steam), which compacts the material down to the desired two inches of thickness.

Standing next to a steel wheel while it is in operation is an experience. The wheels vibrate (this helps in the compaction process) and the vibrations can be felt up to a block away. One onlooker described the sensation as a cross between a foot massage and a minor earthquake.

After all this is done, the paving material must cool — a process that can take up to three hours, if it's an especially hot day — and inspected for proper compression before it passes muster. Then the crews repeat this process two or three times, depending on the width of the street being paved.

Very simply put, that's what it takes to pave a city street.

Nothing to it, right?

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