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Keeping an eye on the road

Town native helps keep highway surfaces safe

Town native helps keep highway surfaces safe

June 10, 2004|by MARLO BARNHART

marlob@herald-mail.com

HANCOCK - For 20 years, Gloria Burke has been keeping her eye on the road, ensuring that those who travel Maryland's highways have a safe and durable road surface under their wheels.

Burke, a team leader in the Western Maryland laboratory of the State Highway Administration, also has responsibility for the mixture/binder quality assurance at the other three Maryland labs in Lutherville, Greenbelt and Easton.

Like a cook keeping a close eye on the ingredients in a cake recipe, Burke has the job of making sure the asphalt being laid around the state is of the highest quality and meets all specifications.

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"Hot mix asphalt is made up of aggregate, which is rocks, mixed with the thick liquid that is left over after petroleum refinement," Burke said. "That liquid is the glue that holds the asphalt together."

The size of the rocks and the ratio of the rocks to the liquid is crucial, Burke said.

"Next time you are driving on a road that was recently paved, you will notice 4- to 6-inch holes in the middle of the road surface," Burke said.

Asphalt cores are removed, tested in the lab and are filled in later.

Hot mix asphalt plants also send samples to the lab in Hancock so the technicians there can tear them apart to see that the mix is right, Burke said. "These tests are our quality assurance that a highway surface is consistent with our specifications. That's our goal."

Two much liquid and there will be fat spots in the roadway. Too much rock will cause the asphalt to crumble prematurely, she said.

"We'd like to get 12 to 15 years out of a road surface but really 6 to 7 years before preventive maintenance is about average," Burke said.

A lot of advances have been made in recent years in the field of asphalt, Burke said. "We used to have one basic binder statewide but now there are four or five different binders and a wide variety of mixes."

The difference is road speeds, amount of traffic, and even location. Burke said the Eastern Shore mix differs from the Western Maryland mix because of temperature, for example.

When a core of asphalt comes in to the lab, the sample is tested to see how well it was compacted by the rollers. Then a sample of the loose mixture is heated to 700 degrees centigrade so the components can be broken down and tested further, Burke said.

There is a new machine in the Hancock lab that simulates highway traffic on the samples, Burke said.

"Most of the asphalt used in Maryland is made with native stone," Burke said. "There are no quarries on the Eastern Shore so stone has to be trucked or barged in."

A native of Hancock, Burke, 57, and her husband, Ed, still call this small community their hometown.

Burke first began working for the State of Maryland at the Maryland Correctional Training Center and then for the Department of Vocational Education in Hagerstown.

She started with the highway department in 1984 and worked her way up through the ranks over the years.

"I learned through experience both administratively and in the technical end of the work," Burke said.

Fifteen people work out of the Hancock lab. Many are local residents, including some who were hired as summer students and stayed on, Burke said.

Statewide, there are between 35 to 45 people on the team.

"Maryland is very progressive in hot mix asphalt, with our local lab leading the way," Burke said.

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