Dig We Must
There is construction everywhere in the Austin area, and I really mean *every*where. It is hard, maybe impossible, to drive down any little road more than a couple miles without seeing a new house or a new road being built.
Buildings is buildings, and they go up much the same way everywhere. But roads, they have a different concept on here. They are widening the highway near our house in preparation for extending the freeway another few miles. This will be a wonderful thing, when done, making it much easier for us to get into other parts of town. Now, to go south into town, we have about two miles of six-lane with five or six traffic lights before we get to the limited-access road. Those two miles routinely take longer than the next ten miles. Pray for freeway.
In the process of widening the road, the first step appears to be to flatten the area on both sides and lay new utilities underground.
Digression number 1: The road system here is structured a little differently, if one is accustomed to the East and the West. I was used to cloverleaf intersections between roads. Not here. In Houston and Austin, at least, the style is very different. The limited-access highway is generally six or eight lanes, three or four in each direction, divided by Jersey barriers and/or median strips. On the outside, there are four or six more lanes of access roads that parallel the freeway. These are lined with businesses, intersect other roads, have red lights, and such. Normal roads. Then every couple miles there is an exit from the freeway to the access road, and an entrance from the access road to the freeway. Or vice versa. Merging happens. On the access road, one moves to the right or left if one wants to turn at the next light.
With a few exceptions, not a bad system. There are a couple places where the distance from the exit ramp (onto the access road) to the right turn lane (off of the access road) is woefully short, and those intersections scare the bejeezus out of me. Accidents happen.
And on intersections that are really popular, where the access road and the lights would be horribly jammed, they will sometimes build a separate ramp just for that exit, from one freeway to another. These are called "fly-overs" locally, because they are taller than the surrounding buildings. The paper sometimes lists the heights. One that we take a lot is 88 feet above the ground, dwarfing the six-story hotel next to it. And, yes, they're scary as hell, too. But they contribute a certain sweeping majesty to the beauty of our urban spaghetti.
Digression 2: The traffic lights here, too, are a little different from what one is used to in the Northeast. Where two major roads cross in a four-way intersection, the lights will go all four ways, one at a time. This isn't universal, but it's almost always true. You get used to it. If you just miss a light, it will be a looooooonnngg time before you move again. Several minutes. You and your groceries will both have aged a little before you get across that road. You might as well put it in park and relax.
Given the way people drive here, this is the safe way to schedule the intersections. For instance, running yellow lights is a popular sport here that will be only too familiar to Bostonians. Still, even with such precautions, accidents at intersections are very common. Two of the top five most dangerous intersections in Austin, measured by frequency of bad accidents, are within three miles of my house, and I have to go through both of them every morning on the way to work. Very carefully.
Digression 2.5: People here may drive badly, and impatiently, but they do drive slowly. The speed limits here often mean something. Back in Massachusetts, most of the time on 495 you had to go 77-78 just to get into the left lane, and 80 if you wanted to stay there. Any slower and you were a hazard to navigation. In Austin, if the limit is 65, the fastest car on the road is going about 70. Maybe on some bad days, 75. Fifteen miles over the limit here would be very conspicuous, and you'd get a trooper's autograph.
Digression 3: How do you widen a road? First, flatten both edges out a hundred feet or so, then lay new utility lines, then re-grade, then repave. But the machines they use to do this! Yikes! Like Paul Bunyan's chainsaw. These are very large yellow machines on treads with large snouts sticking out, like the business end of a chainsaw. They slice into the ground and spit the dirt -- and solid rock -- out both sides on conveyor belts. The trenching machines come in three basic sizes: long and skinny, long and wide, and short and fat. The long and skinny ones have a snout fifteen to twenty feet long and one to two feet wide. They can cut a trench, for pipe or cables, more than ten feet deep. The short-fat ones have a circular snout, so they can't go very deep, but the swath is five feet wide. Maybe they are used just to eat the first few feet of rock near the surface. The long-wide ones are about twenty-five feet long and three feet wide. And they all eat right through the solid rock that is all over this area. Austin, just to digress for a moment in the middle of the other digression, is entirely built on limestone. Most of it is nice, white limestone, fairly soft as rocks go, but that's not saying much. Even soft rock is harder than most substances that we come into contact with daily: wood, drywall, most plastics, the cardboard and tinfoil that our cars are made from, asphalt, melamine, etc. Under that there are layers of very hard, very dense gray limestone, and, in some lucky places, granite. There are no basements in Austin, if you catch my drift. These machines eat right through these layers of rock and spit out pieces from softball-size to motorcycle-size. Remember putting the guy through the chipper in "Fargo?" You could put a rhinoceros through one of these. For sheer destructiveness, if you get in their way, Bullwinkle's Metal-Munching Moon Mice have nothing on these beasts.
End of several digressions. Where were we? Ah, construction.
Well, one of the stranger signs of hyperactive new construction is new kind of plant growing out of the ground: the PVC pipe-and-tube plant. This is a large plant, usually six feet high and three or four feet in diameter. It consists of six to twelve black and red tubes sticking up out of the ground. They range from about an inch in diameter to about four inches, I think. The tops of all the tubes are cut square and covered with caps or tape.
We decided that these were underground utility access lines, sprouting up where new construction *will* be sometime in the near future. On some new roads, these plants appear every couple hundred feet, just where driveways will go in when the pasture is finally turned into subdivision. I guess that, when one is cutting a new road, it pays to run tubes for all the utilities underground, and then just pop them up where they will eventually be needed. The caps and tape are to keep creatures with too many legs from taking up residence.
There's a smaller variety of the PVC plant that grows around telephone poles in some areas. It's yellow, with only four to eight stalks, typically, and they're narrower, only one to two inches. I guess that these are future homes for cables and fibers to salve our insatiable appetite for bandwidth. Bits and bits, yum, yum.
This is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, by population growth. How one views that high growth rate depends on one's point of view:
- thrilling, for the real estate developer;
- ruinous, for the old residents who used to have a nice little college town here;
- ossifying, for the commuters parked in traffic that thickens every day;
- choking, for the environmentalists, or for just anyone who enjoys breathing.
Copyright (C) 2000, 2001, 2002, Richard Landau. All rights reserved.