WHAT'S UP WITH THAT - Pump problem, not Bigfoot, behind center-line blur

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Overspray on yellow lines along Taumarson Road and Prospect Avenue near Plaza Way determined to be equipment malfunction not driver's blurry vision. August 26, 2010

On a warm summer evening just before dark I was heading east on Taumarson Road and noticed the center line looked blurry. Bright but blurry. Then I crossed Plaza Way to Prospect Road and again the yellow center line was out of focus.

What's up with that?

Were my eyes going bad or did someone on the county's road crew miss the day in kindergarten when they taught us to color inside the lines?

Well, it turns out it was none of the above.

Walla Walla County's road striping machine malfunctioned. The high-pressure machine had serious problems with its pump, causing paint mist to drift outside the lines.

And County Public Works Director Randy Glaeser is not too happy about the less-than-perfect lines on a handful of county roads. In hindsight, he said, the county crew should have shut down the operation and taken the machine to the repair shop. But, as the old saying goes, hindsight allows for 20-20 -- as in perfect -- vision.

When the road crew discovered the pump problem, the supervisor had to make a tough decision forced by an unusual circumstance, Glaeser said.

Road-striping paint is in short supply around the nation. A couple of the key ingredients used in the making of the highly visible, highly reflective paint were not in abundant supply. As a result, Walla Walla County was able to get a healthy supply of the bright yellow paint -- 2,500 gallons -- but it was 1,200 gallons less than the usual order.

Road crews were able to stripe about 150 miles of roads with the paint on hand -- and they did it perfectly.

But the county still had a few more miles to do and didn't have enough paint. So, the county purchased 150 gallons from the city of Walla Walla to stripe Prospect, Taumarson, Mojonnier, Cottonwood and Stateline roads.

Once the project got under way it was obvious something was wrong with the equipment as a light mist of paint was making a mess of the otherwise neat line.

One option was to stop and get the machine repaired. Since it wasn't clear exactly what was wrong, there was no way of telling how long the repair would take. It was possible that, depending on what parts were needed, the machine couldn't be fixed to finish the striping before winter. In addition, it was possible the amount of paint needed to do the job right wouldn't be available.

The other option was to struggle through with the lousy pressure pump and get an imperfect reflective center line on the roadway before winter hits.

The second option was picked because of safety concerns -- those roads need a visible center line this winter to help drivers in dark, wet conditions. And, at the time the paint was being applied, it didn't look that bad. It looks worse when it's dry.

"We striped about 150 lane miles this year, had problems with seven miles. It doesn't look pleasing to the eye," Glaeser said, noting that I wasn't the first person to mention the blurry center lines and conceding the machine should have been fixed before continuing.

Nevertheless, the fact that the fuzzy center line has gotten attention is sort of a reverse compliment. The road stripping is usually so good the public only notices when it's not perfect.

"In six years we've done over 1,350 miles and this is the first time had a problem. (Those seven miles are) one half of one percent of the roads we've done. The vast majority of the time we do it and do it well," Glaeser said.

"The overspray will wear off in time," he said, adding -- with a little nod to safety and a hint of humor in his voice -- "You certainly can't miss the lines now."

Rick Eskil can be reached at rickeskil@wwub.com or 509-526-8309. If you, too, wonder what's up with that, let Eskil know about it and maybe he can find out.

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