!!!Things That REALLY Piss Me Off
(no….not roses….roads)
I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a few moments while I tell you a story of sorts that will segue into something else that pisses me off. While the beginning of this story may be a bit of a digression, you’ll benefit from it by learning a bit of geography as well as some geology you might otherwise have missed. (See, I’m not just a bitcher…I’m an educator too!) It’s going to take me a little while to get to the “meat”, so to speak, and at first you may not see where I’m going with this tale, but be patient and eventually you’ll be rewarded.

​A long time ago, and as you’ll see I do mean a long time ago, as in the middle of the so called Ordovician Period about 460 million years ago give or take a week or two, a change in the earth’s plate motion under what is now the North American continent started a long and interconnected chain of events. (And no, for you doubters, this isn’t some Lou BS story. It’s for real!) To give you an idea of how long ago 460 million years was, it was a good two hundred million years before the first dinosaur walked the earth and even well before the first McDonald’s opened. Over the next couple of hundred million years this active plate motion led to the formation of what is now known as the Appalachian Mountain range. Beginning in northern Alabama, the range winds its way in a northeasterly direction through eastern Tennessee, western Virginia and eastern West Virginia, then up through much of central and eastern Pennsylvania and a bit of eastern New York. From there the Appalachians continue north through western New England and northwestern Maine where they begin to recede and then finally into Canada where they gradually disappear back into the ground from whence they came. 

At one time much earlier in their life, the Appalachians were a very tall, proud range of mountains whose height rivaled today’s Alps and Himalayans, but in the hundreds of millions of years since they were at their peak (pardon the pun) they have slowly succumbed to the powerful and relentless forces of erosion which have succeeded in drastically reducing their height. Today’s Appalachian Mountains are mostly high, green in summer, gently rounded hills which are but a shadow of their former self. I guess that’s what a couple hundred million years exposed to the elements would do to any of us!

I was born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania where I presently reside. Pennsylvania is a state of some very stark contrasts. On one hand you have the more densely populated metropolitan areas of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and on the other you have the exceptionally fertile farms lands of the Lancaster Valley in southeastern PA as well as the largely untouched mountainous and heavily forested areas of the northeastern and central parts of the state. Largely hidden from view underneath much of this picturesque and wooded mask of undulating hills and deciduous forest, are huge, almost unbroken layers of limestone bedrock which continue downward uninterrupted for many miles in the direction of the earth’s core.  

As anyone who has ever tried digging a hole in the mountainous areas of Pennsylvania will be quick to tell you, even the mighty earthworm, known widely for its tunneling prowess, has great difficulty digging a hole in these mountains deeper than a quarter of an inch without the aid of a pick, if not large gas powered earth moving equipment! And, no….that’s not much of an exaggeration. Like icing on a cake, the widespread limestone bedrock is mostly covered with a thin layer of what some call “soil” but which in reality is actually compacted stones and rocks of various sizes held together not so much by weight or pressure, but more by an almost endless supply of moist clay which serves as a Crazy Glue of sorts to bind it all together. Getting through this material with a shovel is even more of a challenge than getting through a Lithuanian puppet show with Chinese subtitles.

One of my favorite movies is “Goodfellas”, a movie about the mob starring Robert DeNiro, Joe Peschi and Ray Liotta. There is one scene in particular which always makes me sit up and take notice. The three leading characters, who are all mob members in good standing, drive to upstate New York in the middle of the night to dispose of the body of another unfortunate mobster whom they had just stomped to death. (In case you’ve never seen the movie, it’s not a musical comedy!) They found a secluded spot off of a backwoods country road, and there the three took turns digging a grave using just a shovel and with considerably less effort than it took to stomp the guy in the first place. That scene obviously wasn’t filmed in Pennsylvania, and I doubt it was filmed in upstate New York either because both states are notorious for their clay and rock icing which is usually only a few feet thick and covers the solid bedrock cake immediately beneath it. (Okay, be patient. I’m getting there. Just a little longer and you’ll see where I’m going with this.)

Anyway, because of this serendipitous turn of geology the construction and maintenance of roads in Pennsylvania is among the most costly in the country. To begin with, when you’re in the Pennsylvania Appalachians you’re never “on the level” which is not to say that you’re deceitful, but just that you’re….you know….not level. In these mountainous areas you’re either going up a hill or down a hill which means that…. you’re never level. Of course the one exception being when you’re either at the very top or very bottom of one of those hills in which case you really are “on the level”, even if only for a very brief time. And what that means is that most Pennsylvania roads sit upon either cut or fill, both of which are expensive accompaniments to road construction. 

Beyond that, Pennsylvania has annual temperature extremes which can, and in many years do, range by more than a hundred degrees from summer to winter and which trigger powerful forces of expansion and contraction that over time can lay waste to almost any road or bridge. (Hang on….we’re almost there!) These forces coupled with damage caused by salt and the effects of ice forming under and on roadbeds cause the pavement to rise and then, upon arrival of the spring thaw, fall back and then crack leaving pot holes that can chew up and spit out an aircraft carrier in the blink of an eye. Add to all this the additional problem of dense, hard bedrock being ubiquitous just a few feet below the surface, and you can see why road construction and maintenance in Pennsylvania is pretty much an ongoing war of attrition which pits PennDOT (the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation) against the forces of geology under the capable direction of Mother Nature. (By the way, here’s a great riddle. What’s yellow and sleeps four? Give up? A PennDOT truck!)

By contrast, we need only look at a state like Florida with a maximum elevation of 345 feet above sea level and a mean elevation of slightly less than 100 feet, as compared to Pennsylvania with corresponding numbers of 3,213 and 1,100 feet above sea level respectively. In fact, a significant portion of Florida is only minimally above sea level, and even a casual auto tour of the state would make Kansas or Iowa seem like the mountain capitals of North America by comparison. In fact, if even a small portion of the whale population off the Florida coast were to contract a urinary tract infection, their increased incidence of urination caused by the UTI would be all it would take to put most of Florida under water!

The significance of all this is that, unlike Pennsylvania, a good deal of Florida is “on the level” requiring very minimal cut and fill for its road construction. Additionally, highway design in Florida addresses a much narrower and less impactful range of annual temperature extremes and does not need to take into account the destructive forces of freeze and thaw. And since Florida does not receive any significant snowfall, its roads don’t suffer from the effects of salt. In Pennsylvania, these factors add up to a lot of additional design requirements and maintenance procedures for the state’s highways, factors which add tremendously to the cost of highway construction and maintenance.  

When I was doing some research on the internet I stumbled upon some interesting information which sort of ties together the origin of the name Pennsylvania, not only to its geological roots, but to its roads as well. You’ll probably be surprised to learn that the name “Pennsylvania” is of Welsh origin dating back to around 1250 AD and loosely translates into “land of shitty roads”. (Man, did they nail that one!) And to a great extent that pretty much describes the state of roads in the Keystone state. April through November is Show Time in Pennsylvania when PennDOT and its contracted road construction armies mount their major offensives. During this period it’s difficult to find any significant stretch of PA’s highways and bridges that doesn’t have some sort of closure and construction activity under way. The present campaign started somewhere around six or seven years ago and has continued throughout that time frame letting up only during the cold and snowy winter months. While the duration of some of these projects can be measured in weeks or months, most are measured in years (many, many years!), and it seems as if the Panama Canal and the great Pyramids at Giza were built in much less time.

Let me to ask a question or two of you Pennsylvanians out there regarding PennDOT’s conduct of this not so private war of the roads that you and I are paying for through our tax dollars. Have you ever noticed (of course you have!) when driving through a long (I mean “long” as in a few miles or more), single lane construction zone that typically only a little teeny part of the section closed seems to actually have any active construction under way? So here’s my point and the big question. If the contractor is only going to be working on a fairly small part of the roadway that’s been shut down for construction, why not just close off only the area where the active construction zone is located? Is it really necessary to shut down five miles of multilane highway and squeeze traffic into a single lane for that entire distance when maybe less than a quarter mile is an active construction zone? But what’s even worse than that is driving through such a stretch of road in warm, pleasant weather on a week day and seeing that no one is working! Is it too much for PennDOT to require that (1) their contractors close off no more road than is absolutely necessary to accomplish the work at hand and, (2) once a portion of a road is closed for construction their contractors must have a viable work force on site and actively engaged in the work at hand no less than eight hours a day, five days a week? Is that really too much to ask?

But before I forget and move onto to some other road construction issue, let me briefly touch upon another related topic which pisses me off. When you approach a construction zone where one lane is closed, why does the simple act of merging into a single lane create such havoc and take longer to accomplish than Congress trying pass a budget? It really mystifies me why it takes so long for two lanes of traffic both traveling in the same direction to merge together into a single lane. I mean, really, it defies the laws of physics. Part of it relates to the actions of a few select drivers who feel they have a divine right not only to move directly to the merge point without any interference, but to be welcomed there by those whom they are trying unceremoniously to cut off. You know the ones I mean….most of them drive BMWs or Mercedes or Caddys, and I assume that when they purchased their vehicles some sort of special highway construction pass must have been included as a part of an options package. I mean why else would they cut in so rudely? Right? But what I find even more amazing is that there is no shortage of unconscious drivers who lack a respectable set of “cajones” and will gladly let these line jumpers cut in front of them when they should, at a bare minimum, actually be thwarting their cut in attempts and simultaneously flipping them the bird. (Dexterous people can do both of those things at the same time!) 

While I’m on the subject of rude drivers, I should probably offer a few thoughts about road rage. Is there anyone among us who, at one point in time or another, has not experienced a “negative” reaction to the actions of an inconsiderate driver? Come on now….admit it. Wouldn’t you have liked to rip his head off and stuff it back down his shirt? I’ll go even further and admit that if I owned a gun (which I don’t), and if I had it in the car with me (which I didn’t), I’d probably be doing a few consecutive life terms in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary (which I’m not). I say Lewisburg because in my case it would almost certainly happen on an interstate highway which would make it a federal offense. And besides, I hear the food and movies are much better there than in a state lock up!)  

Alright, back from my digression. Now that I have taken the time to assure everyone that I really do understand the difficulty and extreme expense of PennDOTs continuing war of the roads, maybe you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt when I say that I’m really not trying to pick on them. With that in mind, I’d like to relate to you two totally separate yet similar incidents in which I unwittingly became a “casualty of war” and which seriously calls into question PennDOT’s conduct of that war. A few years ago during a period when most of the major roads around Northeastern Pennsylvania were undergoing major repair and reconstruction work, I had the misfortune of becoming a statisticof Pennsylvania’s war of the roads. While driving through an active construction zone on an interstate highway at somewhere around forty miles an hour, I hit a pothole deeper than a Tolstoy novel that ripped my tire to shreds and cracked the rim before you could say “Oh, Shit!” The pothole was exceptionally deep and hidden from view by rainwater which had filled and camouflaged it. (In fact, the pothole was so deep that the workmen who repaired it a day or two later were rushed to the hospital suffering from the bends!) Although my car warranty did cover the road service I summoned for assistance, it did not cover the tab for the tire and rim which totaled up to around seven hundred dollars. It just didn’t seem right to me then, nor does it seem any more right to me now, that I should have to shell out seven hundred bucks because one of PennDOT’s contractors was too lazy or too cheap (or lazy and cheap) to fix a road problem which was caused by their adjacent construction activities. Is it too much to expect that that type of severe road hazard would not and should not be present on an interstate highway?

But let’s fast forward another month or so while I was driving home from an out of town meeting on another Pennsylvania interstate highway. As I rounded a slight bend I suddenly hit some bad road with a minefield of random potholes which appeared to be almost everywhere. As I zigged to avoid one, I just steered myself into another. And then….WHACK! One was deeper than the rest, and like my experience the previous month, I felt the rim bottom out on the pavement as the tire was violently ripped apart and instantly lost any semblance of air pressure. Although this tire too was a total loss, at least the rim survived this second incident intact. So once again I’ll pose essentially the same question. Is it really too much to expect that interstate highways should be free of hazards that could cause two flat tires in the span of one month? I mean….really….is that too much to expect? 

Apparently the answer to that question, at least from PenDot’s point of view, is yes…yes, it is too much to expect. And how do I know this? I wrote them a letter, that’s how. Now you’re probably wondering if the response I got included a check to reimburse me for the destroyed tires and rim, or did they simply apologize but not make any reimbursement? Actually neither. In fact, that was about three years ago, and I’m still awaiting a response. But you know, with mail service the way it is, it’ll probably arrive any day now! (And it will probably be delivered by the Tooth Fairy….right after Congress passes a budget on time!)  

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