I’ve had to drive back and forth to Anchorage these last few days.
I live about 60 miles from the city and I normally enjoy the drive.
Now there’s only one way to get from where I live here in rural Alaska, outside of the little town of Palmer, to Anchorage, and that’s the Glenn Highway - well, to be completely honest you could swim down the Knik Arm or fly, I suppose. Driving wise however, it’s the Glenn or nothing.
Here in Alaska we have three seasons, not four like you people down south in the lower 48 or twenty-eleventeen metric seasons like they have in Canada and places where Soccer is the national sport. First there’s Winter (note the capital “W”), followed by breakup which is the season of brown and mud and muck and glop and rain between the cold part of the year and the other part (this is also the season where we find all the bodies that pile up during the winter). Then there’s construction – or what you people call summer. Construction is sort of like summer, only louder and colder and with a lot more rain and time off for fishing. We don’t have fall, one day it’s sunny and cool, the next day your driveway is three feet deep in fluffy solid water. That’s why our lawn mowers come equipped with four wheel drive, cup warmers, and plows.
We’re at the height of construction right now.
Now the last couple of years we haven’t had much in the way of construction – mostly the last couple of years we’ve just had one long Breakup, then Floop! Winter again. Oh, sure, the snow went away and the leaves turned green and the mosquitoes came out and it sort of looked like construction – but it wasn’t. See, for it to be construction – well, we would have had to have somebody at the helm who was actually, you know, running the state. That person apparently had other, more important, shit to do. So, for the last two years basically nothing has gotten done around here – especially the road work.
Alaska is notoriously hard on roads.
In the winter the moisture in the ground freezes. No, pay attention, it freezes. Like 40 below (that’s like negative a billion for you Canadians). Water is unique in its chemistry. Almost all other chemical compounds contract when they get cold. When they change state from liquid to solid they take up less volume. Not water. When water freezes it expands. This means that when the water in the ground freezes it makes the ground get bigger. Sometimes it gets so big it explodes with tremendous force. We refer to this quaint phenomenon as a frost heave. When frost heaves happen under a road, well, they’re like magic speed bumps. Suddenly a big chunk of the road just buckles up in front of you and blamo! you get to see how the towing rider on your insurance policy works. I’ve seen fifty pound slabs (that’s like a million kilos for you Canucks) of asphalt thrown hood high. Now, couple that with studded snow tires and tandem semi-trailer rigs and you get pot holes that would qualify as national monuments in other parts of the country (it also explains why no vehicle in Alaska has an unbroken windshield). Even without the frost heaves, studded snow tires tear up the roads. For those of you from warmer climates, studded snow tires have little metal cleats embedded in the treads to increase traction on ice, most places they are illegal because they damage the roads so badly. But not here in Alaska, here studded snow tires are like polar fleece – we put them on in October and don’t take them off until we see the first mosquito of construction season. Those studs wear down the road surface pretty fast and the major thoroughfares and highways end up being like inside out railroad tracks. By the time breakup rolls around, the roads look exactly like those grooves left in the stone by Conestoga wagon trains as they headed west to California:
Driving on this crap is a lot like driving one those kiddie racing cars at Disneyland, the ones that follow the metal track around and around. You can twist the wheel any damned direction you like, but your tires fall into the grooves and in Alaska the road drives you, not the other way around – if you get my drift here.
So, as I said, the road deteriorates pretty damned fast around here. Road maintenance during construction is an ongoing process. Slack off for a season, and things go to hell pretty damned fast indeed. Slack off for two seasons in a row and you have ruble that vaguely resembles the German Autobahn around the end of 1945 after three solid years of unrelenting Allied saturation bombing.
Nobody has done any maintenance on the Glenn Highway in going on three years. It had gotten to the point where you could see dirt at the bottom of the studded tire grooves, there were days where I looked into the gapping canyons and expected to see Chinese people staring back from the other side of the planet. We didn’t have a highway, we had lanes consisting of three disconnected parallel strips of buckled blacktop. Driving on it was a white knuckled adventure in courage. Driving a motorcycle on it was bald faced insanity.
Now, mix in a couple hundred thousand tourists in motor homes the size of the Queen Mary. Add ice, snow, whiteout conditions, large wildlife, some gomer in a rattletrap jalopy doing about 35 in the fast lane, horribly bad don’t give a shit Alaskan drivers on cell phones, snow plows, and a partridge in a pear tree (or in our case a bald eagle which the tourists have stopped in the middle of the highway to gawp at) – and, yeah, really you want to thoroughly empty your bowels before setting out for work in the morning.
People were understandable dismayed by this turn of events.
They complained loudly.
Only to be told that the state lacked the funds to fix the situation.
Accordingly, our Governor in a display of simply stunning intellectual brinkmanship and political posturing, turned down Federal stimulus money specifically designated to fix the fucking roads and, you know, employ people. Boy, screwing over the residents of your state, that sure taught President Obama a lessen, didn’t it? Stupid Liberals, take that! Watch me kick my constituents in the nuts again. That’ll learn ya, you pinko socialist, you.
Anyway. Seems we managed to dredge up a new governor (the previous one having an $11M book deal to attend to. Apparently she’s writing a book, about ducks or something) and some funds and construction is upon us with a vengeance. Outsiders gauge the intensity of their summers by temperature, Alaskans don’t really notice temperature – we determine the intensity of our non-snow season by the number and density of orange cones along our roads. This year, it’s a bumper crop. It’s like we’re being invaded by armies of strange pointy aliens from the planet ADOT. It’s a sea of orange as far as the eye can resolve. Somewhere in China the People’s Number Two Heroic Orange Rubber Safety Cone Factory is working three shifts of peasant labor to death cranking out cones to feed the insatiable demand from the (north) West. We're changing our state symbol from the Big Dipper to a silhouette of a big burly woman with a mustache and a Marlboro holding a “Slow” sign.
It’s one hundred and twenty miles round trip to Anchorage and back (or about 5000 CanuckOmeters) and every single inch of it is under construction.
You notice things.
- Construction Zone Speed Limits Are Optional:
There are GIANT ORANGE SIGNS that that say in GIANT BLACK LETTERS: “Fines doubled in construction zone.” There are other dire warnings. There are signs telling you what will happen should you hit a construction worker (or Empowered Road Maintenance Engineer or whatever we’re calling them). The speed limits are reduced. We are not kidding.
Only one problem – compliance is on the honor system.
Nobody complies with the speed limits. And nobody is worried about the double secret extra jumbo sized fines either.
Attention Alaska State Police: Here’s a clue, there isn’t any point whatsoever of having laws to protect workers in construction zones, or posting signs, or even of having a damned speed limit, if you’re not going to enforce them.
I’m tooling along doing the posted 55MPH (I know, but I’m all out of Canuckistan jokes, sorry) construction zone speed limit and people are blazing past me at 70, 80, and 90 miles an hour. Zig zagging through the cones. Giant double tandem ALCAN haulers are barreling along at 80, inches from workers, swerving on the rugged road surface.
Nope, not a one.
Wait, I’m wrong – there’s a state trooper.
Up there, on the overpass, the Old Glenn Highway overpass – you know, the only section of the entire goddamned highway not actually under construction and without double fines and speed restrictions. I mean sure, of course, that’s where he’s parked. Good job, Trooper, no really. If you look up from your cell phone conversation for a minute, you can probably hear me banging my head on the steering wheel.
- Gravel needs to be softened up:
Whatever gravel is where the construction is at, isn’t the right kind of gravel. The right kind of gravel comes from as far away from the construction site as it is possible to get and still be actually in the state.
Watch. There is a constant stream of enormous tandem semi tractors hauling gravel from one end of the construction zone to the other. If construction is on the south end of the work zone, then the Laws of Construction dictate that the gravel must come from as far north as possible. If the work is proceeding in the North end of the zone, then the Immutable Rules of Road Work dictate that the gravel will come from as far south as possible. The same rules hold true for east/west-west/east construction zones as well. The bottom line is that if the gravel pit is next to the construction zone, then the gravel in that pit is completely unsuitable and cannot be used under any circumstance for the adjacent project. However, the gravel in that pit can be used for other more distant roads. See, apparently, to be useful, gravel must be driven around for a while in heavy traffic by men with huge gray beards and dirty hats who don’t know what a turn signal is.
Also, it is very important that the gravel be moved only during morning and evening rush hours. It is absolutely imperative that the gravel trucks are on the road no later than 5:30AM – that way they can be at the construction zone early enough for the drivers to get a cup of coffee and stand around for five or six hours until work actually starts at noon.
- You can only pave one lane per week:
But first what you need to do is run this big damned dinosaur of a contraption down the road. This thing eats asphalt and grinds off the top six or so inches of the road surface, leaving behind a jagged and grooved surface similar to the bottom of a bomb crater. You only do this in one lane, leaving a six inch drop between the lanes. The ragged surface and the razor sharp cliff edge between lanes is specifically designed to shred the rubber off your tires – because, really, fuck you. If people wouldn’t drive on the road, we wouldn’t have to fix it all of the time. Now once you’ve got fifteen or twenty miles of this, you, uh, take a break. For about two weeks. You just pack up all of the workers (sorry, but that’s what they call them, workers) and the trucks and the paving machines and those orange water coolers and you just go jerk the hell off in Cancun or something. You don’t level the other side of the road and you sure as hell don’t pave it. You let it sit for a while. This period is designed to make commuters think, “Hey, maybe the old shitty road wasn’t too bad after all” and “I wonder where all the road workers went?” This period also adds an exciting air of mystery to the project. After about two or three or maybe four weeks, you pave it, BUT then you mark it off with more cones so nobody can drive on it – well, except for the construction workers. After a week or so you move the cones so people can only drive on half of it. See, it’s fun to drive with one side of your car on smooth new pavement, and the other set of tires directly on top of the shoulder rumble strips, after about twenty miles of that you can actually feel your internal organs liquefying. Once you’ve got one lane done, you take another month long break, then you grind the hell out of the other side – then you go back to the state and demand the contract be renegotiated before you’ll finish the job, because hey screwing the state is what we do.
See you next summer, suckers.
- Traffic Cones are Heavy, it takes about nine people to move one:
There sure seems to be a hell of a lot of people in orange vests just standing around getting paid to stick their thumbs up their asses.
The other day, on the Palmer-Wasilla highway, I passed a huge coned off construction zone where they are adding yet another stop light and turn lane, because really, you just can’t have too many stop lights, can you? If one is good, fifteen or twenty in a ten mile stretch must be better, right? Yeah, Road Planner: because the civil engineers who graduated last in their class need jobs too. Anyway, in the middle of this construction zone, sitting on the pavement was a girl in an orange safety vest, painting yellow lines on the tarmac with, yes, a little paintbrush. You know, because if you’re going to create bullshit makework jobs to suck at the public tit, you might as well just be blatantly obvious about it. Seriously, why would you use the big expensive automatic road painting machine parked over there on the shoulder? I mean, hell, you’d be done in five minutes and then what would The 2nd Assistant Line Painter Non-supervising Senior Journeyman Drone do for the rest of the shift?
When it comes to these types of operations, my dad says that it takes nine people: two to come and two to go, two to shit and two to mow - and the foreman.
That sounds about right.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go make an appointment to have my studded snow tires put back on. Winter’s coming.