All that Glitters Is Not Road
Driving past the old wharves on Pratt Street, it was hard to picture his forecasts coming true. But when he pointed the old Chrysler up Charles Street, his urban optimism gained instant credibility as the streetlight's shaft hit the pavement and we saw that road sparkle like one of our school arts and crafts projects. The first time I thought I was seeing things, until my father explained that glass had been mixed into the asphalt for this very purposeto make the streets glitter in the night.
"Glassphalt," it was called, and I thought it was such a cool idea that I figured it would be only a matter of time until every street in the city sparkled, right up to the blacktop in front of my house in Northwest Baltimore.
That day never came. In fact, the use of Glassphalt never expanded from a few well-traveled spotsthe stuff still glitters in Mount Vernon, around Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore, and on Walther Boulevard in Northeast. Its brief heyday and history reflect how economic forces prevailed over sparkle appeal.
In the early 1970s, then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer was honing his promotional skills, selling downtown as ground zero of a Baltimore renaissance. And Glassphalt was going to literally pave the way for the ballyhooed comeback.
Local manufacturers such as Maryland Glass Corp. (famous for making the blue Bromo Seltzer bottles) and Carr-Lowery Glass Co. agreed to provide the city with free crushed glass, known in the industry as "cullet." This being years before recycling was standard practice, the street project gave companies a way to reuse glass waste.
Schaefer said in a recent interview that he got the idea after seeing Glassphalt used in California. "We put it down on Charles Street," he says. "At night, it looked like little diamonds in the street."
Press reports dubbed Charles "Glitter Street," but the new pavement wasn't just for decoration. City officials hoped Glassphalt would last longer than standard asphalt mix. It was also cheapersince the cullet was free, the Glassphalt mix cost less than standard paving material composed entirely of a stone aggregate the city had to pay for. The savings of 30 to 40 cents a pound could add up quickly, says Paul Fitzgerald, who at the time was vice president of Ratrie, Robbins and Schwerzer, one of the contractors who put the sparkle in Charles Street.
"Back then we were doing it as a kind of a demonstration project," says Fitzgerald, who now works for Lafarge Corp. "The city was looking for a way to use a waste product in the street."
But the program fell apart when glass manufacturers found a better way to dispose of it, at least in business terms. When a market developed for recycled glass in the early '80s, glass companies no longer had any incentive to donate their cullet, and asphalt plants had trouble finding enough to make the glittery street surface.
"Supply of fresh glass, that's the largest problem," says Brian Dolan, president of the Maryland Asphalt Association. "There used to be a lot of milk bottles and soda bottles. The sources aren't readily available today as they once were."
Meanwhile, the city was facing complaints from the paving industryonly two companies knew how to apply the Glassphalt, Schaefer says, leaving other firms feeling shut out. The city opened the process to other companies, he says, but by that time the rising cost of glass was dooming the effort: "It cost a little bit more, so I think after I left [to become governor in 1986], they didn't bother doing it anymore."
Today, the use of Glassphalt is rare, and arises not from its glittery attractiveness but its durability. That's why Reliable Contracting Co. of Millersville, thought to be the largest Glassphalt manufacturer in the area, uses it as an undercoating on highways. Reliable's Robert Scrivener says the company used it to pave a few suburban subdivisions, but concerns about kids getting hurt playing in glass-lined streets relegated the stuff to out-of-sight use.
Both of Glassphalt's chief qualities are on display in those few stretches of Baltimore road, causing the pioneers who first applied it to marvel at its longevity. Fitzgerald notes that the Glassphalt applied to a glitzy strip of Charles in the early '70s is still going strong, far outlasting the normal 20-year life expectancy of regular asphalt.
And Schaefer, now the state's comptroller, still stands by the stuff.
"If I had to do it all over again, I'd do most of the streets in the city of Baltimore" with Glassphalt, he says. "It worked out well."
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