This past weekend I had the chance – again – to hit the road and drive to a destination a couple of hundred miles or more distant. Since this is late spring/early summer, the road construction season is firmly upon us. In driving through parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, I was able to see the different ways these states handle road construction and maintenance and that has definitely given me insight into the differences in viewpoint about the mission of our Departments of Transportation.
Let’s cut to the chase: Pennsylvania is, hands down, the worst state I’ve ever driven in with respect to their project management in road maintenance and construction. In northern Virginia, when a road needs to be resurfaced they close off a section of about a mile or two and send in the task teams in quick succession. The milling crew comes in with the machines to strip off the old asphalt, if needed. They’re gone for no more than a day when the road prep teams come in. They remove any debris, usually with big honkin’ street sweepers, and then perform any general repair or prep of the surface. There are occasions where they need to bring in cutting teams to remove a section of the concrete below the asphalt and then pour a replacement section, but that’s usually done the same day or the day after. The day after that, the surfacing teams come in and lay down the new asphalt. If they do that in the morning, they’ve usually got someone starting to repaint the lines by the afternoon. I have seen sections of road being re-done where all of these teams are literally within the same 1-2 mile stretch of closed road. They travel down the road in a cohesive string, closing only as much road as they reasonably work. There are roads near my home where resurfacing has been completely accomplished in 48 hours.
On Interstate I70 in Pennsylvania, between the PA line with Maryland and Breezewood, There are at least 3 sections of road closed on the northbound side, reducing traffic to 1 lane. The closed sections range in length between 3 and 4 miles and when I went through there, there was not a soul or a piece of road equipment in the closed sections at all. I was through there 2 weeks ago on Friday, June 13 and again this past Saturday morning, June 20. The sections that were closed the week before remained closed this past weekend. The areas being resurfaced had not been completed, not even 1 yard of the road was done. In a week. In traveling further north on PA 220/I99 between Bedford and Duncansville, there were more of these closed-and-deserted sections of “work zone” again ranging in length between 3 and 4 miles. Again traffic was 1 lane.
The difference in approach is something I’ve become familiar with in my own industry. There are companies with IT departments and network management groups where the techies have grown to consider the information systems they work on to be there simply for them to work on. The users (and that word is usually spoken as a curse by these types of IT people) are an annoyance, intruders on the systems these IT guys maintain. Systems are designed with an eye more toward making life for the IT department easier and maintainence on these systems is done with more of an eye toward “maintaining the system” than in maintaining its usability. Networks, you see, don’t exist as separate entities in my view. There is a purpose for them, and that purpose is to enable the efficient flow of user data and user requests. It is the user experience that is – or should be – the primary driving factor in how, when, and where the IT staff perform the tasks necessary to keep the systems running at peak.
Road systems are the analogy for network systems and I use roads and highways as metaphors very often when speaking with non-technical people about this or that network design element. What the difference in road maintenance approaches used by Virginia (at least in the northern part) and Pennsylvania tell me is that the PA DoT people have lost sight of the purpose of their road systems. They are quite obviously managing the projects to maintain the road system so as to present as little problem for themselves as possible. They stake out huge tracts of road and implement 1 task of the process in that entire section before getting the next task team in place. They don’t work on Saturdays to complete the process quicker. They start many, many work zones that then lie completely fallow over many days when they clearly don’t have the teams available to complete the job. (Well, they’re unavailable or they’re simply not being deployed, 1 or the other.)
The purpose of the road system is to move traffic. That mission should be driving their approach to maintenance and it most obviously is not doing so. The object of a project is supposed to be completing the project, not merely starting it. Here at home, I don’t see the lack of concern regarding traffic disruption that I did in PA. There are construction projects going on in literally dozens of places (and there are some that close lanes for extended periods) but there’s something about those projects that you wouldn’t have seen in PA: people are working on them. There’s gear in place, there’s materials being used and brought in, etc. There aren’t miles of orange barrels surrounding torn up areas (and some that aren’t torn up, even) where nothing appears to be going on within.
I’ll be going through those areas again a number of times in the weeks to come and I’ll see if there’s any progress as we go along.