They fearlessly walk the Beltway at midnight.

Cars and trucks rush behind their backs. Their only protection against the 70-mph stream of steel and rubber is mere cloth and plastic: standard-issue reflective vests and 3-foot-tall orange safety cones.

Ten-ton rollers dart and weave beside them, often coming within inches of their feet. They inhale asphalt fumes. They must shout to be heard above the din of traffic and machine. Their clothes are darkened by the black goo.

This is the $8.10-an-hour life of a highway construction crew. The crew members work when others sleep so the motorists who already hate them won't hate them even more.

"The public's pretty hard on us," says Larry Phillips, a veteran State Highway Administration inspector. "They throw beer bottles and curse. I've seen grown men cry, fistfights break out. It's a bunch of weirdos, man."

For more than a decade, Maryland has been performing more xTC and more of its highway work at night. It's a matter of necessity. Urban roads have become so traffic-choked and rush hours so prolonged that closing a lane or two of a major highway during the daytime can have a catastrophic effect.

Charles R. Olsen, the SHA's chief engineer, estimates that nearly half of all work assigned by his agency is now done between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. Around Baltimore and Washington, the percentages are much higher; urban interstates are maintained almost exclusively at night.

"If you tried to work the Beltway during the day, you might get only three or four hours of productive time," Mr. Olsen says. "There is some additional cost involved to working at night, but when you trade that against the savings in production time, it's probably a better than break-even proposition."

On this night, a crew from Baltimore-based P. Flanigan & Sons is laying a 2-inch-thick "mat" of "stone matrix asphalt" on the Beltway's outer loop between the Frederick Road and Wilkens Avenue exits.

Translation: The crew is resurfacing with an expensive, dense type of asphalt used widely in Europe. It is supposed to last longer than the pavement that has typically been used on U.S. highways.

Ten years ago, Ben Langhans was a laborer in a Flanigan crew that resurfaced this same stretch of pavement with what was then a highly touted mixture of asphalt and crushed stone known as "plant mixed seal" or simply "popcorn."

Today, he is foreman for the Flanigan crew that is replacing the old layer of popcorn -- a nickname earned by its rough texture. Ten years isn't a bad life span for an asphalt surface, but when popcorn fails, it fails quickly, creating dangerous stretches of potholes and rough spots.

Replacing this three-mile stretch is costing the state a little more than $2 million.

Before the new surface could be added, the top three-fourths-inch layer of asphalt had to be ground away in a process called milling. Most of that was done last fall, a simple enough job for the diamond-tipped teeth of a milling machine.

"All the public knows is that the road's tore up," Mr. Langhans says. "They don't like it, and they don't like us closing lanes to fix it."

Mr. Langhans, 34, grew up in Cockeysville. One of his neighbors was Kathy Primus, the daughter of a bridge contractor. It's a small world: Ms. Primus is the SHA project engineer overseeing Mr. Langhans' repaving.

Prepping the pavement

Their attention is focused on what they call a paving train. The milled pavement has first been brushed to remove gravel and debris, then sprayed by a tank truck with a tacky oil that will glue the new layer of pavement to the old.

The train's payload comes next, a dump truck with a steaming load of asphalt fresh from a plant in Westport. It dumps the 300-degree cargo into a material transfer box, a behemoth on wheels that draws the asphalt by conveyor belt into the paver.

The paver takes the stream of black material and applies it to the road, smoothing out the surface. Behind it, three rollers compress a carefully measured 2 3/8 -inch layer to a hardened 2 inches.

The trucks come and go. Each brings 20 tons of mix. Tonight, the crew will need 55 loads (1,100 tons) to complete a single lane 1 1/2 miles long. The big train moves slowly but steadily.

"We want nonstop paving from one end to the other," Mr. Langhans says. "You get better ride-ability -- no seams."

The scene has a strange film noir quality. Workers are surrounded by rising steam, created when water sprayed across rollers to prevent sticking comes into contact with the asphalt. Spotlights flood the area immediately behind the paver but leave much of the operation in shadow.

The water hitting the hot pavement creates a snap, crackle and pop that would do Kellogg's proud. Water vaporizes quickly. Crickets attracted to the light perish when they jump on the still-hot pavement.

"You get used to the smell, the smoke and the sound," says Donald Castle, a Flanigan laborer. "But it's a long hike. You're always walking. We should get paid by the foot."

He is a rake man. His job is to walk behind the paver and rake over any holes. He's helped by a shovel man, Tony Ferguson, who shovels out extra mix to fill the faults.

'Death's a foot away'

The young laborers poke fun at Nathaniel Tinnin, the crew's dump man, for constantly harping on safety. But caution is in Mr. Tinnin's nature. He directs dump trucks, a critical function.

"With this kind of work, you have to pay attention to what you're doing," says Mr. Tinnin, 54, who has about 15 years more paving experience than the young men. "If you don't, a car will get you, or you'll get run over by one of these trucks."

Mr. Tinnin has witnessed his share of accidents. So has just about everyone in the 17-man Flanigan crew. So has Ms. Primus and her two inspectors.

"I tell my people to keep their eye on traffic," Ms. Primus says. "At least you'll be looking the driver in his eyes when he hits you."

Most of the time, the crew seems unconcerned about the danger. A state trooper with flashing lights is stationed at the entrance to the work zone to slow traffic. The effect on traffic speed seems negligible.

"Death's a foot away from you," Mr. Langhans says. "Traffic's always your biggest hazard."

No lunch or dinner breaks for this crew. Workers must strike while the asphalt is hot. But roller driver Wes Ekas makes the most of the situation. He keeps several hot dogs wrapped in foil on the back of the paver. When the pace slows, he will have a steaming meal.

There is good comradeship this night. The job is nearly done, perhaps two weeks of paving are left for a project that began a year ago.

Most workers hate the night shift. They live a schedule opposite of the rest of the world, reporting at 7 p.m., retiring at 6 a.m., and it can make a person irritable. It takes a veteran paver to keep perspective on such a demanding and often dangerous occupation.

"It's a job like any other," says Arthur Bradford, a tank truck driver who has paved roads a quarter-century for Flanigan. "I don't come out here with no attitude. A lot of people don't even have a job."

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