Downtown View:Questions You’ve Always Wanted Answered

Recently we’ve noticed small, colored plastic disks embedded in the asphalt on Boston streets, especially in sections that have been repaired. What are those disks doing there?

“They signify the utility contractor that did the work” wrote Gabrielle Farrell, associate press secretary in the mayor’s office, in an email. “This gives the Public Works Department a way of tracking work done on the street. PWD notifies these companies if work is improper or if after 60 days PWD needs to finish the job.

Turns out I could have found the answer on the city’s website at

Since the spring of 2011, Public Works has required all utility companies, private contractors, city contractors, and other agencies that dig up Boston’s streets to insert what they call Utility Repair Tag Pavement Markers. These plastic disks identify whoever dug up the street. For example, Verizon’s orange disk has the year it was installed in the center, its name at the bottom and its bond number of 416 at the top. National Grid and NStar Gas have both been assigned a yellow disk, but their names and numbers are different. Private contactors’ disks are green. J. F. White, which does much work in Boston, was assigned the number 287.

City officials can check the disks if they notice a problem. Citizens can also identify the contractor or utility and call the mayor’s hot line or submit a cell-phone picture of the problem and the contractor through Citizen’s Connect.

These disks may help solve a problem about which many residents complain: a recently paved street, dug up and left messy by a contractor or utility that has to do underground work.

Hosts on NPR thank guests for appearing on their show. Why do the guests respond with a “thank you,” when they should say “you’re welcome?”

First, it’s just a place-holder, said Dr. Shari Thurer, a local clinical psychologist who is a keen observer of human behavior. Lots of people say thank you when there is really nothing to thank people for. But on NPR, some people have a new book out. It’s hard to find venues to talk about such things. No wonder they are thankful. Even if they haven’t written a book, those who are interviewed are probably genuinely grateful for the chance to express their views. It bugs me, but Dr. Thurer takes it in stride. Maybe the guest could say, “It’s been my pleasure,” instead.

Tower cranes are operating all over Boston and Cambridge. Some have an arm at a right-angle. Others have a movable arm mounted on the diagonal. What determines the kind of crane used on a construction site?

Chris King, president and general manager of Liberty Construction Services, which owns the cranes Suffolk Construction uses on its projects, knows the answer.

“The right-angled tower cranes are typically referred to as hammerhead tower cranes,” he said in an email provided by Leah Pennino of Suffolk Construction. “These are the more popular cranes throughout the U.S. The “diagonal jib” cranes are referred to as luffing jib cranes, and they are not as common.

“The luffing jib cranes are used in tight areas like downtown Boston where other buildings are close by. By being able to “luff” up and down, these cranes can avoid nearby structures. Hammerhead cranes are typically faster to erect and dismantle and easier to operate. These hammerhead cranes are found on most concrete jobs that are outside of downtown settings or in areas without nearby structures.

“The luffing jib cranes typically have more capacity than most hammerhead cranes by design. This is why most buildings erected out of steel use them. Hammerhead cranes are better suited to concrete projects.”

            Aren’t you happy you now know about tower cranes?

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