Wellesley’s Department of Public Works estimates it has used a road paving technique called chip seal for 40% to 50% of its road treatments over the past 10 years. The DPW gets complaints from time to time about the initially rough surface, often from those who feel the crunch underneath or the dings from flying pieces of gravel while driving over it. But the material tends to get smushed down over time as vehicles travel over it, sometimes to the point where you wouldn’t necessarily know the difference between it and smoother asphalt paving.
The situation has been quite different in the Ingraham Road neighborhood between Grove Street and Dover Road, where residents have been rubbed the wrong way since the chip seal appeared about a year ago. The surface is rough, gravel flies into the air as cars drive by, and pieces land in yards and on driveways. More concerning have been kids getting injured.
One parent reached out to us recently after her son fell off of his bike onto it and wound up at an emergency room for stitches near his eye and on his chin; debris had to be extracted from his knee. As described during the meeting, falling on chip seal can be like sliding your skin across a cheese grater.
Two other neighbors, both of whom thanked the DPW for taking their concerns seriously, spoke at the Board of Public Works meeting this week (view Wellesley Media recording) during citizen speak. Britt Estwanik urged the DPW to cover the chip seal as soon as possible, saying that the kids “are really looking forward to having their safe streets back to play on.”
DPW Director Dave Cohen said he’s never experienced the number of calls or emails about chip seal as he has with this neighborhood. His team has met with residents to listen to their concerns and address them (the last time I can recall a resident asking us about chip seal was back in 2013).
There may have been factors, including moisture underneath the chip sealing, that caused the material not to adhere as well as it should in the Ingraham Road area. “There’s some defects that are notable…there’s more loose stone than we would typically see,” Cohen said. He also cited increased attention to the surfacing because of more activity on the roads by kids, on bikes or just running around, in light of the pandemic.
The DPW has had its contractor reexamine the area to try to come up with solutions. They’ve looked at how Lexington has handled such situations, and are leaning toward something called cape seal, a “micro-surface” that would be applied over the chip seal to smooth things out and provide durability. A proposal should be in hand this week that can be shared soon with neighbors, Cohen said.
“We think this is a good opportunity to do a pilot program in that neighborhood to try something that we haven’t done before,” he said.
Wellesley isn’t ready to abandon chip seal, which is still appropriate in some places, Cohen said. One benefit it can have on roads like Ingraham that are popular cut-throughs, is that it can naturally slow down vehicles. The town also makes chip seal a part of its roadway mix because it’s a lot cheaper—like 50%— of regular asphalt, and that’s a factor that the DPW can’t overlook during tight budget times. The cape seal isn’t cheap either, Cohen added.
I swung by the neighborhood in my car and indeed, the road feels unfinished. As one neighbor said: “I thought it was a base for a topcoat. Didn’t realize it was the final surface.” The town has sent its street sweepers over to get rid of the loose stuff, and Cohen said that helped but didn’t completely resolve the problem.
I’ve run on this material before in other parts of town and can practically feel the soles of my shoes being chewed up beneath me, though have also benefited from it during winter where I’ve found it less slippery than smoother paving.
Board member Scott Bender mentioned being sensitive to issues around roughness and smoothness, noting that his last big cycling wipeout took place on a smoother surface sprinkled with leftover winter sand. Or as a friend of mine in the neighborhood said, “I find all hard surfaces are dangerous when you fall.”
Cohen told the Board: “There are trade-offs… We just want to make sure that we’re being really intentional about these choices and taking into consideration all the different factors.”