The Houston Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area covers 8,778 square miles – an area larger than the entire state of New Jersey. And the city of Houston Public Works and Engineering department maintains more than 16,000 lane miles of streets.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, and sometimes, the road is going to get bumpy.
The City Savvy staff followed the men and women of Public Works and Engineering’s street and drainage division who are working hard to make your drive a little smoother and a lot safer.
Donald Williams, a PWE section chief, said that road crews have an overwhelming task to maintain the streets of the fourth largest city.
“Houston is huge, and there is a constantly revolving need for road repair,” Williams said. “We try to do job the right way the first time because we can’t afford to do it twice. Our crews take pride in what they do. We live here, and we repair the streets across the city with the same professionalism that we would in our own neighborhoods.”
The work is physically demanding and often dangerous, but every precaution is taken to maintain the highest levels of safety.
“We may not be fighting criminals or rushing into burning homes, but this is dangerous work,” Williams said. “We are in the line of duty, and the public is watching us.”
Road crew members rarely know where the day will take them until they report for duty at 6 a.m. Street resurfacing jobs are prioritized based on a combination of the number of resident complaints, severity of repairs, safety concerns, and jobs that will impact the most motorists.
Charles Clophus, an equipment operator with 30 years on the job, drove the truck that towed the asphalt roller to 600 Danfield, near highway 288 and Almeda Genoa. The task for Clophus and the crew of eight was a base failure repair on a residential street often used by families between the neighborhood and the Almeda School.
Spending a career improving the city’s streets, Clophus said he rarely needs a GPS to find his way around.
“I know all the highways and byways. I’m the go-to guy for giving directions. My wife always calls me to ask how to bypass traffic jams.” Clophus said. “I love coming to work, I love running the equipment, but this job is no joke. This is hard work, and you have to be physically and mentally on point to do a professional job safely.”
The two-lane street – flanked by ditches, overgrown weeds and woodland area– is precisely the type of road that motorists avoid to spare damage to tires, alignment and suspension. Originally formed as a country road, the asphalt has slowly pulled away from the road base, and is rutted with the crisscrossed cracks and uneven surfaces that come from old age, erosion and a deteriorated structure.
The process to resurface even a short stretch of road easily fills a full workday:
- Heavy equipment called a road grader is first used to excavate a pre-marked section of the street.
- Once the old asphalt is removed, another machine cuts a straight edge along the perimeter of the section.
- Next, crushed limestone is dumped into the trench to create a base for the asphalt.
- Using a special rake called a loop, crew members smooth the limestone before a roller compresses the area.
- Dipping an old broom into a bucket of pitch, a crew member dribbles the tar-like resin onto the trench so the asphalt will adhere to the limestone.
- The asphalt mix, which is heated to 290 degrees, is then dumped in batches over the trench shoveled into place.
- Crew members use the loop to spread the hot asphalt evenly before the roller completes the job.
Each member of the crew including Clophus, Efrem Stokenberry, Gerald Joseph, Sam Williams, Harrison Woodard, Jessie Pouncy, Timothy Drones and Mildred Turner – has a specific role to keep the operation moving.
Intense periods of activity are followed by required lag time between phases in the resurfacing process such as waiting for trucks to deliver the additional loads of asphalt or waiting for the asphalt to settle. That day, the crew even had to pause for a stray Chihuahua who wandered onto the job site and momentarily walked across the hot asphalt mix.
Timothy Drones is among the crew members who spreads the asphalt into place. It’s a job that requires practiced precision similar to smoothing frosting onto a cake.
“The hot mix has to be just the right height and level before the roller goes over it. It’s a good workout, but pushing that asphalt all day can be a back breaker,” Drones said “Occasionally pieces of hot asphalt find their way into a work glove or safety boot, and that will make you dance until you get it out.”
That day, Gerald Joseph served as the crew’s safety lookout and he was quick to shovel the hot asphalt mix into place for Drones.
“You can buffer the work site with trucks, set up cones and wave flags, but some motorists will keep on going,” Joseph said. “Sweat never hurt anyone. At the end of the day, my body hurts, but I hope the public is satisfied with the service we have done. We know that what we do improves the city little by little every day.”
Despite the wear and tear on the body, impatient motorists, and exposure to elements, Clophus said he is grateful to have a steady job with regular hours.
“I feel blessed to have a job with the city.” he said. “You can make a decent living, have retirement set aside, I was home with my family every night, and I never missed any of my sons’ baseball games.”