The yellow center stripe down endless miles of road starts beneath a 58,000-pound mechanical monster. Route BB in Morgan County had never been striped before the monster came rumbling over it one peaceful summer day.
“When people come home tonight they’ll really notice it. They’ve lived here all their lives and all of a sudden, there’s this yellow paint in the road,” said Bob Russell, driving the lead of the 10 mph procession of the three MoDOT vehicles that escort the monstrous machine its crew calls “the striper.”
“A lot of people really appreciate it.”
Rural roads such as BB were never well-traveled enough for a center stripe. But this year, citing the need to improve driver safety, the Missouri Department of Transportation expanded its striping program to put a center stripe on all paved roads by the end of the year. The program expansion comes as MoDOT shifts from building new roads to maintaining existing ones.
The MoDOT order calls for new center stripes on all state-maintained paved roads wider than 18 feet, and white side stripes for all roads that handle at least 1,000 cars per day. That’s 9,000 miles of new stripes.
The striper usually spends the year reviving worn-down stripes, sometimes twice a year in heavy traffic areas like Columbia. The new project has striping crews like Russell’s, which serves 13 counties including Boone, working overtime.
The team of seven men rotate jobs, so the inching through the green rural countryside of Mid-Missouri is less monotonous.
Today, Phil Lecure, one of the crew member, is driving the striper, eyeing a periscope-like device and struggling with the wheel to keep the truck’s spray guns on the center of the road.
Richard Huff, the team’s senior striping specialist, is in the back of the striper, controlling the guns, flicking switches in pattern to make gapped yellow stripes. He cranes his neck out the side window to look down. His clothes and skin are crusted with yellow paint.
Huff has been striping for 18 years. Before that he worked on MoDOT bridge crews for seven years. He says that by the end of the summer he’s ready to quit striping.
On a stretch of State Highway 135, another striping worker, Ian Ciolli, is sitting across from Huff and has his head out the window. Underneath him, a spray of white paint lays a 4-inch stripe on the edge of the pavement, and whatever weeds are growing in the cracks. The fresh stripe, glimmering behind the striper, wobbles when the road is uneven.
Behind the spray, a chute pours glass beads that will embed in the drying paint and cause the stripe to reflect headlights. Where the beads don’t stick to the paint, they bounce off the road like soda bubbles.
Most of MoDOT’s extra cost for the project, $1.8 million more than the usual striping budget, is in these supplies.
The new order means an additional 147,000 gallons of yellow paint, 127,000 gallons of white paint and 2.5 million pounds of glass beads.
The striper hisses, dragon-like, as it lumbers past cattle and grain farms. A boiler sends piping hot water in tube coils around the paint, heating it so it will set better. For stripes, if not the striping crew, the hotter the weather, the better.
The crew covers 45 to 50 miles a day. By mid-October, the air will be too cool to set paint, and statewide striping operations are only half completed, according to MoDOT estimates.
The crew refills the striper’s paint tanks on the grass in front of a white-sided church in Florence surrounded by a cemetery. The striper truck pulls up next to the nurse truck, a six-axle beast carrying 800 gallons each of yellow and white paint and 10,000 pounds of glass beads in great steal boxes.
The two massive machines dock with hoses for each of the three tanks. One of the crew sprays clumps of grainy yellow paste off the undercarriage off the striper. The sweet ammonia smell of the water-based paint, and diesel fumes hang over the tanks.
When the glass beads are funneled into the striper, the nurse truck’s box of beads with it’s lid open looks like a sparkling, hot tub-sized hour glass running down.
Having completed a portion of Highway 135, the crew sets out for Route BB. Russell had gone out the day before and logged where to paint on the virgin road.
Huff said striping a road for the first time is easier because there’s no worry about not matching existing stripes. Since the road is not traveled enough for side stripes, Ciolli gets to watch the scenery go by.
“All he has to do is flip switches,” Huff said. “There’s no lines to follow. It’s harder for the driver.”