Friday, April 1, 2011

Another mystery of Italian craftsmanship

Friday, April 1
Everywhere we look, we see marvelous Italian craftsmanship: paintings, statues, architecture, stonework, brickwork, clothing, pastries, pasta, windows and doors and the list could go on. I do notice one area where Italian craftsmanship is sadly and glaringly wanting. The quality of asphalt paving here is abysmal. I do asphalt maintenance for a living in the summer, so of course I can’t help but notice these things, but one does not need to be an expert to recognize the problems.

The autostrade are an exception. They are mostly smooth and in good repair, but almost every other paved road I have seen has its problems, even including many newly done projects. In the first place, most asphalt roads are done without proper preparation of the base, so after a short while, the roads sag and crack. Grass grows right up to the edge of the pavement, so the roots penetrate the surface and cause the edges to crumble away.

And then there are the repairs, which is the part that amazes me the most. Usually when a road develops multiple cracks—that alligator skin appearance—I will use a saw with diamond tips to make a clean cut. Then I will remove the old asphalt. If necessary, I will dig down a foot or two to find out why the ground has sunk and then refill with gravel and compact. A sticky substance called tack coat is then applied around the edges of the old asphalt to make the new stick to the old. Then I replace the old asphalt with hot asphalt, compacting with a plate compactor or roller, being careful to make sure the new asphalt matches the existing grade. As a final step of the repair, I seal the seams of the patch with a hot, rubberized tar to prevent water infiltration. After this, depending on the wishes of the customer, I may seal the entire road or parking lot with two coats of industrial grade asphalt sealer.

Here, the process is much, much easier, though extremely ineffective. A crew will drive around in a truck with cold mix asphalt and shovels. They will put a shovel load here and there and tap it down a bit with the shovel. Then they will move on, leaving the passing cars to compact the asphalt. How they choose which of the many holes to add asphalt to is somewhat of a mystery. There is no cutting, tack coat, hot asphalt, compactor or seam sealing. It looks like they pass by each road every one or  two years, and a single chuckhole may have five or six different patches applied in this manner, while some are completely passed by, making for bumpy and uneven surfaces. As for sealer, I have never seen a parking lot here that has been sealed.

It is amazing to me that a country in which people value style and craftsmanship so highly can tolerate such terrible road work. And roads are obviously very important to Italians, because despite excellent public transportation, nearly every family has a car, and Italians are noted for their love of driving fast. I sometimes wonder if it is done on purpose to slow people down, but I know that can’t be true. Chalk it up there with the Etruscans as another of the mysteries of Italy.


Comments welcome.