Dirty Boots: “On the interstate, movement is good.”

I hate being stuck in traffic more than almost anything. I hate it so much that traffic is one of the prime factors that has kept me from moving to a larger city, like Birmingham, Atlanta, or Nashville. Once, in Atlanta, when I was getting onto the interstate and saw that it was backed up, I literally pulled to the side, let a few cars pass, and backed my way back up the on-ramp, ignoring the angry honks, to go another way. I hate being stuck in traffic.

But what bothers me even more than being stuck in traffic is when I finally see, after crawling along, that the cause of the glut is a small group of men who are standing there, doing nothing. Last week, on the way home from Mobile on I-65 northbound, a trip that began with a nice pace came to halt just south of the Rabun/Perdido exit. The orange signs had warned “ROAD WORK NEXT 7 MILES,” but I still had hopes for only a minor inconvenience. It didn’t work out that way. Since we were completely stopped, I took out my phone and looked at the Maps app, which showed red all along the stretch where I was.

The creeping and crawling along was pretty civil at first, but there were still no cones in sight, much less workers. The cones came a couple of miles later, and that proved to be one clog: two lanes narrowing to one. It had been more than a half-hour by that point, but once we got into a single file line, traffic did move a little. In these situations, I’ll take 35 or 40 MPH. The speed limit signs said 50, but hey, on the interstate, movement is good.

Nearer the exit, a couple of miles worth of cones blocked off areas of road that were clearly ready to be driven-on, but I tried to keep my mind on the car in front of me. We kept moving, and soon the dashed lines stopped. Okay, I thought, they haven’t striped this part yet. Eventually, I saw one worker, an older guy with a mustache walking down the road all by himself for no apparent reason. We kept tooling along.

As we approached something that appeared to be actual road work, the pace slowed again, this time to about 25. C’mon, I hollered at no one in particular, get moving! I was sick of it. It had been over an hour. Why? To accommodate a crew of a dozen men on a fifty-yard stretch of the highway— where only the two on the big, yellow paving machine were doing any work! The rest were standing roadside, leaning on shovels, talking, strolling, cooling off . . . (Several miles back, I had seen a crew on the opposite side of the road who were fixing a guard-rail, and only half of those six were doing anything. The others stood by, hands on hips, talking and laughing. I was in stand-still traffic and had plenty of time to watch.)

It’s not like what I was doing was terribly important – driving home to pick up my kids after a lunchtime book talk – but my common sense tells me that road work could be handled better. What if those guys standing around were to get in a truck, drive down to the finished parts of the road, and move the cones to shorten the one-lane area? Or what if they quit standing around, got the striping machine, and did the part that wasn’t striped? Or if they have guys waiting on the paving machine to do its work, maybe they could bring more than one of those machines to the site. We hear regularly about highway speed and worker safety in the situations, and I agree wholeheartedly that everyone who works on our roads deserves to be safe on the job site. But in the situation I just described, no one could have hit a worker on 98% of that seven-mile route— there weren’t any!

Because we lack strong public transportation systems in the Deep South, our cars are very much part of our lives. Which means that our roads are a big part of our lives, too. That’s how we get where we’re going to do what we do. We need those roads to serve us efficiently, and that isn’t happening when a couple-hundred vehicles lose an hour or more of travel time tiptoeing through a seven-mile stretch where only fifty yards worth of work is being done.

“Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige,” a weekly column published every Tuesday afternoon, offers a Deep Southern, Generation X perspective on life in the 21st century. To find and read previous posts, click here for a full list.

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