Delegates, roads consultants take pothole tour of western Monongalia County

MORGANTOWN —Monongalia County’s five delegates joined with two expert roads consultants for a pothole tour of western Mon County, and invited The Dominion Post along for the ride.

This sign is posted on a tree at one end of a particularly treacherous stretch of Jakes Run Road.

With Delegate Danielle Walker at the wheel, they rattled out W.Va. 7, weaved and clunked down third-world Jakes Run Road, then followed some other back roads to W.Va. 218 up to Blacksville and back to Morgantown again.

At the end of a particularly bad stretch of Jakes Run they got out and walked back to observe the crumbling, cratered road in detail.

“This is failed patch over failed patch over failed patch,” said engineer Chris Childs, with Salem-based Inca Roads, a roadway engineering and inspection firm. “This whole road is an emergency.”

Inca Roads engineer Chris Childs illustrates to Delegates Rodney Pyles and Barbara Evans Fleischauer how water infiltration leads to “raveling” of road surface, which results in potholes and other problems.

Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer echoed his thought: “That’s the worst road I think I’ve ever seen.”

The idea for the tour was sparked by a letter Childs’ wife, Abby Childs, owner of Inca Roads, sent to Gov. Jim Justice and copied to a number of legislators and Division of Highways officials.

“With considerable news coverage as of late regarding the state of our roads, I feel compelled to offer my assistance,” she wrote. “Given recent record rainfall amounts and nearly a decade of heavy-haulers utilizing local and weight-restricted roads, it only requires a short drive in any direction to realize that we are falling behind in the battle to maintain roads against climate- and load-related conditions.”

Inca Roads, she said, has worked with oil and gas companies to craft road assessment and repair strategies. The company has also does assessment projects for other states. She explained what the company can do and invited Justice to take a ride-along with her of some north-central shale gas county roads.

That letter inspired Fleischauer and Walker to invited Inca Roads on a western Mon tour with the whole delegation.

Bumpy roads

If you haven’t driven W.Va. 7 or Jakes Run here’s an overview (The Dominion Post made a separate trip the next day and covered some portions of W.Va. 7 and Jakes Run that the delegates didn’t have time to travel).

W.Va. 7 is on and off sketchy for its entire length to Wetzel County. On this day, heading west, just past Core, a patching crew was filling potholes. Two workers, with a rake and a shovel, were piling asphalt into them. The truck carrying the asphalt would run over the patches to sort of pack them down. A lot of stray asphalt was strewn along the highway and spraying up onto Walker’s SUV.

Around Jakes Run, 7 is disintegrating in both lanes and has long ruts.

About a mile down Jakes Run are some S-curves where water is washing away the hillside and sections of the guiderail are barely coverer or hanging in midair. Along with potholes is what Chris Childs calls alligator cracking, and half of a lane is gone for a stretch.

After a relatively smooth stretch around Daybrook and Mooresville, it turns treacherous again around the Jakes Run Methodist Church. From there to McCurdysville, it’s generally impossible to drive much faster than 25 mph or stay in a lane.

The potholes are deep are everywhere. Frequent braking down to 10 mph is required; there’s another stretch where half a lane is gone and dodging hazards near some blind corners poses the danger of possible head-on collisions. When something is coming in the other lane, potholes and potential car damage are the only safe choice.

Commenting on the constant swerving across the road, Abby Childs said, “It’s a safety issue. Even trying to drive the speed limit is dangerous.”

The delegates met and spoke with an oil and gas worker from Gettysburg, Pa., who was driving by while they walked the Jakes Run stretch. He knows what that traffic does to roads and the challenges to keep up with the damage. “This trek into West Virginia, into Morgantown, they’re the worst I’ve ever seen.”

They also spoke with a homeowner who lives on Jakes Run Road. “It’s a terrible lack of management and priorities,” he said.

Back on 7 and heading west, the road is smooth for a stretch on either side of Clay-Battelle High School, then cracked and potholed again through Bula, Wana and Wadestown.

After the sharp bend at Wadestown, it’s strangely smooth for about three miles, then starts to fall apart again. Just yards before the Wetzel line, half the westbound lane is deeply sunken for a car length or two. The passenger side of your car will be about 6 inches lower than the driver’s.

Potholes, potholes

Chris Childs had a lot to say about potholes: how they develop and the right and wrong ways to patch them. The road crew was doing it the wrong way.

Potholes and alligator cracks, which usually run lengthwise along the road, are the result of raveling, he said. Raveling – disintegration of the asphalt paving – is caused chiefly though not exclusively by water infiltration. Poor joint construction, poor quality mix or hardened paving binder that oxidizes over time and becomes hard can also cause raveling.

“There’s been so many patches that I’ve noticed that are against all industry standards,” he said. “The patches are never cut out, squared up and sealed. So you have water infiltration. It takes less than a year for them to be all busted up again.”

A patch should meet the adjacent paving flush, and each type of asphalt mix has an optimal compression density. If it’s not done right, it won’t last.

Some of the Jakes Run patches are what is called skin patch or scratch course, Childs said. That’s a thin layer of asphalt over the top of cracks or holes. In these cases, the stones in asphalt were larger than thickness of the coat, causing the patch and surface to separate. “There’s not enough material to effectively do anything, other than spend some time and some money.”

Fleischauer had some similar observations about patches on 7. “They did some what they call skip paving. They’ll do a piece of it – maybe they’ll try to do the worst, to save money. And then there are parts of this that are just horrible. All they’ve done is throw-and-go – and it does definitely go.”

Another issue that leads to raveling is lack of ditching, and water running across roads. The Division of Highways has ditching on a three-year cycle. Childs said drainage ditches require constant maintenance. Ditching should be done twice a year, before and after the rainy season.

Much of the roadway wear in western Mon and in Wetzel and southwest Pennsylvania is caused by oil and gas traffic. Inca Roads works in Pennsylvania and Ohio and Childs said the gas companies in Pennsylvania do what’s called mill and fill.

They mill a 4-foot- wide strip down 4 to 5 inches and place a coarse asphalt binder course over the sub base. “That seems to hold up really well.” It lasts until the surface course is applied. “We wonder why the state [West Virginia] doesn’t use the same procedure on patches. It’s quick. There’s very little labor involved, actually.”

The topic of a fuel tax hike to raise money for road maintenance came up once or twice. This topic is largely still off limits at the Capitol, though Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel and Transportation Committee chair, said more than once during the session it may become a necessity.

What’s next

Inca Roads will prepare what they call an Emergency Road Assessment – ERA – of Jakes Run. They explain that an ERA is “a fast, low-cost, and simplified method for prioritizing roadways according to repair needs and accounting for high-severity distress quantities.”

Abby Childs said they’ll come back and measure the length of road, drive it a couple times to assess its rideability and main issues, then drive it again, stopping at each bad area, “which would be the whole entire road in this case.”

While an ERA usually focuses on the bad spots, Chris Childs joked, “We may have to actually reverse the entire process here and just look for the good spots.”

The report will be prepared at no cost and presented to the delegates, Chris Childs said, “to get some data to them, and help as both citizens and business owners. Our interest is both personal and professional.”

Asked what the delegates will do with it, Fleischauer said, “I think it depends on what it says.

Walker agreed but added, “We need to be transparent with it. We need to let our county commissioners know about it. We need to let our cities know. We need to let the public know.”

Tweet David Beard @dbeardtdp Email