Main Street meltdown

Published 4:35 pm Tuesday, May 7, 2019

By Frederic Lee

Staff writer

First there were the clouds of dust and now it’s melting tar. 

Exposed tar on the 100 and 200 blocks of Main Street became liquified last week as the temperature rose to 87 degrees, to the point that some of it was tracking onto the brick sidewalks and into shops. 

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The meltdown follows repaving of the two blocks last fall. 

Blair Bros. — the construction company that performed the repaving — treated the affected areas with sand to see if that will help the situation, according to Town Manager Brian Thrower. He added that there are no larger plans to address the situation at this time. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

The top layer of the street, composed of what’s called “chip-and-seal,” has a tar and gravel composition and was what town officials thought would match the 300 block, but would be more durable than the finish put on the street three decades ago. It wasn’t.

By noontime on May 1, the tar — previously exposed along tire tracks over the last few months — took on a shiny, reflective sheen, with some of it becoming malleable. Black markings that resemble pawprints appeared in front of Yummaries Bakery at 213 Main St. later that day. 

While the material remains in solid state during cooler, morning hours, it softens as the sun reaches its high point at around 1:30 p.m., becoming stickier and more liquid in hot spots into the afternoon and evening.

Smithfield Mayor Carter Williams said that the sticky situation is a result of recent road repairs, which took place back in the early fall, and that officials were working to figure out what the root of the problem is. 

 “The consensus from Blair Brothers and staff was that the mechanical removal of the sand and aggregate to address the dust concerns of the downtown merchants may have been premature and has not left any residual to absorb the tar that has liquefied due to the hot weather,” said Thrower in an email dated May 2. 

Thomas Casper — father of Vintage Potential antique storeowner Jessica Casper — helps man the store and said on May 2 that customers tracking tar onto the carpet from the street had become a major problem. 

A sign on the door of the store reads: “Please check shoes for tar from the street. Thank you!”

Since the initial repaving back in the fall, Thomas said that customers have been bringing pebbles into the store on their shoes, and now that the heat has altered the state of the tar, the pebbles are coated with it and it’s staining the carpet in places. “You can hear the cars when they hit the tar,” said Thomas, adding that it sounds like something sticking and then being quickly removed. With summer approaching, Thomas said that, “it’s going to get a lot worse than this.” 

“It’s detrimental to the shops, especially the ones with carpets,” said Thomas, adding that he’s seen pedestrians crossing the street and then, afterward, checking their feet. 

Thomas said that issues with the street, including residual dust back in the fall, street closures and now the sticky tar, had slowed down productivity at the store. 

Margaret Carroll, owner of the Smithfield Ice Cream Parlor at 208 Main St., voiced concern that the sticky substance could interfere with her business if it starts clinging to cars and other things that come into contact with it. “I want my money back,” she said about the repave project, referring to her tax dollars. “First they had dust …  and then the tar’s all showing … It’s a terrible job.”

The tar component of the street had already become exposed due to traffic, following a resurfacing that was completed in the early fall, which came after more than a year of intermittent utility construction on the street.  

The repaving included stripping the original surface layer away and repaving it with asphalt, followed by a chip-and-seal, split pea gravel exposed aggregate material. 

It wasn’t long after the resurfacing was complete that black track marks appeared in the road along driving paths as pebbles of the chip-and-seal layer were worn away. In October 2018, Smithfield Town Council voted to withhold about 25 percent of the payment for the repaving — $9,627 — for several weeks so that they could see the final results of the street. At that point, loose dust from the chip-and-seal was the main point of contention from Town Council. 

The roadwork required several weeks of road closures during business hours, with the streets completely blocked off during the week.  {/mprestriction}