Damon Parker, of  Oak Park, has been working for the Road Commission for Oakland County for two years.

Damon Parker, of Oak Park, has been working for the Road Commission for Oakland County for two years.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

Patching crew shares unique view of Michigan’s road problem

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published April 24, 2019

 George Thomas fills a pothole on a residential street.

George Thomas fills a pothole on a residential street.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

METRO DETROIT — They were nearly halfway down the block on LaSalle Avenue in Waterford Township, near Telegraph and Elizabeth Lake roads, when they heard it.

“How about redoing the whole road?” yelled Linda Goforth, a resident who has lived on LaSalle for 40 years. “You’ve never touched this road.”

Damon Parker, of Oak Park, and George Thomas, of Detroit, just looked at each other and smiled. As workers for the Road Commission for Oakland County, they spend most of their spring patching potholes. Heckling is common.

“We’re just out here maintaining the streets. We have nothing to do with rebuilding the streets. That’s a completely different thing,” Thomas said.

For Parker and Thomas, their day begins at 7:30 a.m. at the Road Commission hub in Southfield. They find out where they’ll be working, get a map and head that way with a trailer filled with 4 tons of hot patch — that’s an asphaltic concrete mix that’s heated to nearly 300 degrees, then shoveled out of the trailer to fill pesky potholes.

Each shovelful can fill one small pothole, but the task is a tedious one — Parker and Thomas take it one street at a time, one gaping hole at a time, filling them individually until around mid-May.

“We have some rough days. It’s been cold out here, and it’s nice right now, but in Michigan it might be cold again in another two hours,” Thomas said. “But we’re not out here to put on a Band-Aid. We’re doing the best job we can to make these roads as good as we can for people until (the county) can get out and fix them.”

The finicky Michigan weather is hardly a complaint for the two, though. And neither is the tough labor — in fact, Thomas said he enjoys the workout and has lost 50 pounds since he started two years ago.

The headaches can come in the form of people who put the safety of road workers at risk by driving too fast in work zones or being openly hostile with laborers just trying to get the job done.

Oh, and the texters, of course.

“We’ve got to be careful — keep our eyes open and stay focused. We got people zooming past us all day with their phones in their face,” Thomas said. “I’ve seen people with their phone right up on their steering wheel. So, if (Parker) is on the road, I’m watching his back. If I’m on the road, he’s watching my back.”

Not surprisingly, they also encounter commentary from neighbors like Goforth, who are fed up with the state’s notoriously terrible roadways and voice their concerns to the only folks they see addressing the situation.

“They just started patching the potholes on this road this year because the school buses are going down here now. But I blew out a tire one year. Just hit a hole and blew it out. I was pissed,” Goforth said. “One time, the guy in the second house down here went and bought stuff himself to fill the holes. It was on the news and everything.”

The tale is hardly unique.

Michigan roads have been consistently rated among the worst in the country by groups like the American Society of Civil Engineers, which estimated that the average Michigan driver spends about $645 per year in repair costs prompted by damage from poor roads. That figure goes even higher in heavy traffic areas like metro Detroit.

And while auto damage repairs might as well be considered a cost of living expense in the Great Lakes State, bankrate.com conducted a survey in 2016 that revealed that 63 percent of Americans couldn’t handle a $500 auto repair bill.

Mark Sykes, the owner of Showcase Collision in Warren and Sterling Heights, said he tries as best he can for that very reason to keep costs down on common services like wheel realignments, suspension fixes, tire and wheel repairs, and more.

“Gosh, this stuff happens so often,” Sykes said. “Tire prices these days are crazy. Cheap tires are $100 each, and depending on the car, they could be $1,000. That’s why I run deals for alignment for around $50 or discounts on wheel bearings, that smaller stuff. Because the other repairs could cost a couple thousand.”

A controversial gas tax proposal that would hike prices at the pump by 45 cents per gallon is being discussed at the state level, and some local governments are doing what they can to fix roads in their jurisdictions. Shelby Township, for example, recently announced that it is hoping to team up with Macomb County for a $20 million endeavor that would ambitiously take on 16 road improvement projects in the township over the course of the next two years.

Until Michigan figures out how to pay to rebuild its crumbling infrastructure, Parker, Thomas and other pothole patchers can rest easy knowing their jobs are safe.

However, that might cause more anxiety than relief.

“People see us, especially on the expressways, and they get aggressive. They’re mad that we’re holding up the street, even though we’re trying to fix the streets,” Thomas said. “They come by and flip us (off), throw bottles at us. I’ve had so much stuff thrown at me. I had one lady try to spit on me, but she didn’t realize her window wasn’t down. It splatted right back in her face.”

Did you know?
Shifts for road maintenance workers may begin early and end late, but they’re not actually on the roads until after 9 a.m., and they’re off the roads by 2:30 p.m., to accommodate rush hour traffic.