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Chicago Potholes 2009: An aftermath of damage, money and fried chicken

By May 14, 2009 July 8th, 2014 No Comments

Chicagoans like to gripe and complain about winter weather and its close companion, potholes. But being hardy Midwesterners, we are able to take the bad with the good. We always find the upside.

Two consecutive seasons, 2007-2008 and 2008-2009, broke a decades-long string of relatively mild winters, with cumulative snowfalls at levels not seen since the early 1980s. Snow accumulations for both years were about 20 inches above average – about 55 inches versus 30-35 inches in “normal year” – a seasonal factor that initially grabs most public attention. Snow fouls up commutes, causes backaches, slip-fall accidents and myocardial infarctions (heart attacks). Sometimes the grim reaper carries a snow shovel.

But it’s the potholes that linger, long after the last snowflake melts.

These street craters actually result less from snow and more from temperature fluctuations. The net results of potholes, however, are nothing but a downward spiral for municipal and personal finances. Potholes are expensive for everyone – the city, county, state and federal government each shell out millions for repairs, while individual car owners pay the price in flat tires, damaged rims, wheels, alignment, broken axles and cracked catalytic converters. Mechanics interviewed by local television news reporters express regret that they’e so busy with repairs in winter, and no one believes them.

Still, we focus on the positive. After two years of exceptionally rough riding conditions, Chicagoans are learning to navigate like stunt drivers. Further good news: no one complains when a street is being resurfaced or altogether reconstructed. A few weeks of inconvenience, dust and smelly asphalt trucks results in a silky-smooth road, a pure joy to traverse. And the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) informs us that Chicago doesn’t even rank in the top twenty worst cities for “rough road” conditions. Who knew? To top it off, the winter of 2008-2009 included pure political theater, a public dialog between Mayor Richard M. Daley and KFC, the fast fried chicken restaurant company. The chicken chain offered to fund our pothole repairs as part of a marketing campaign.

It doesn’t help that certain high profile people in Chicago have had their own encounters with potholes, enough to damage their vehicles – and report them on the evening news. ABC affiliate WLS-TV’s own investigative reporter, Chuck Goudie found a “super hole” while driving on the heavily traveled Congress Parkway ramp leading to Wacker Drive. The station tracked it for two weeks, waiting for city repair crews and reporting on the many vehicles that sustained damage in that time period.

Yes, the pothole situation in Chicago can actually be entertaining. Just be careful about how you describe that to the guy who needed $2700 in repairs to his Lexus due to a nasty crevice on Lake Shore Drive.

In December 2009, suburban Palatine’s Director of Public Works Andy Radetski twice hit a pothole on I-55 near Bolingbrook. The same pothole, two days in a row. Not surprising, the issue was prioritized by his own city’s department, he says.

Yes, the pothole situation in Chicago can actually be entertaining. Just be careful about how you describe that to the guy who needed $2700 in repairs to his Lexus due to a nasty crevice on Lake Shore Drive.

Money fills [some of] the holes

As is easily imagined, potholes cost money – to municipalities and individuals. Seeing as how most individuals are taxpayers, that means most of us pay twice. Chicago Tribune reporter Jon Hilkevitch is among several journalists who track the devolution of streets for the paper and its readers. He reports some key statistics on the costs of potholes and street maintenance overall:

  • Chicago has millions of potholes, according to Chicago Transportation Commissioner Tom Byrne
  • Between 6,000 and 8,000 holes are repaired daily in the winter and spring
  • The city’s annual budget for pothole repair is $12 million
  • Longer-term repairs include street resurfacing and street reconstruction. For four-lane arterial streets, it costs $1.3 million per mile resurfaced and $8.4 million to reconstruct the same distance.
  • Resurfaced roads are expected to last ten years; reconstructed roads are good for 20 years before repairs are necessary. This assumes normal wear and tear conditions.
  • The State of Illinois provides $42 million to Chicago for resurfacing.
  • The federal government is providing Chicago with $150 million in highway repair funds, plus an additional $86 million in federal economic stimulus funding.

Doing the math for you, a million potholes fixed at a rate of 8,000 per day means it would take 125 days to fix them all, which, accounting for weekends means about 21 weeks for full repair. That assumes no new potholes, which is, of course, deluded. Commissioner Byrne said millions, so the 21 weeks is a fantasy. On the money side, paying for longer-term fixes with federal and state funds, $278 million combined, we could get 213 miles of road resurfacing or 33 miles of road reconstruction. Chicago has about 3,800 miles of roads, every inch of which experience the freeze-thaw conditions of winter. It brings to mind Titian’s painting of Sisyphus.

This is not a good time for increased spending. The city’s overall budget deficit might grow $250-$350 million by the end of 2009, according to the city of Chicago official website. Some expenses are discretionary, but the flow of people and commerce impeded by adverse weather conditions is not much of an option.

To the rescue, sort of, came Chicken Man. More specifically, KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken). The Louisville, Kentucky-based company launched a contest in March to fill potholes in four cities plus its hometown in exchange for publicity and branding on some of the filled holes. Mayor Daley – whose own Lincoln Town Car got a flat tire this winter from a giant pothole on Pulaski Road – reacted by negotiating publicly. City Hall reporter Fran Spielman quotes him saying, “If they give us $25 million or $30 million, we’d be glad to look at it. I want the money up front. I’ll take $50 million if you give me $50 million.” When later informed that KFC logos would be painted on top on the street repairs themselves, Daley upped the ante. “It all depends if they’re ready to give 50, 60, 70, 80 million. There’s a lot of potholes out there.”

Chicago residents don’t mind seeing hizzoner (his honor, the mayor) play hardball. The city’s sell-off of the parking meters to a private company, and camera-caught red-light-runner ticketing, are already making a big dent into residents’ finances.

Alas, KFC’s public relations firm representative tells us the company selected Warren (Ohio), Topeka (Kansas), Chattanooga (Tennessee) and hometown Louisville to receive $3000 grants for pothole repairs. No strings were officially attached to the funding, however stencils and spray chalk of the KFC logo were provided to municipalities to use at their discretion. When asked about the differential between $3000 and Mayor Daley’s interest in $80 million, the KFC rep, himself based in Chicago, obliged by saying, “Hey, this is Chicago. Go big.” The company says it may reprise the program next winter due to a strong response from mayors, municipalities and the media.

Pay through your own nose

The transparency of municipal budgets shows us one side of the costs. But the costs to individuals whose cars are impaired from moonscape maneuvers are as elusive as they are maddening. AASHTO’s “Rough Roads Ahead” reports that additional vehicle operating costs (repairs) in Chicago due to rough conditions are $333 per year. This compares to $638 in New York and $746 in Los Angeles. So it could be worse. (Why so high in LA? Warm weather places like this city, Honolulu, Sacramento and San Diego all have rough roads and high car repair costs, largely attributed to poor maintenance funding.)

Where do those costs come from? Consider the following repairs for a 2005 Toyota Camry:

  • Wheel alignment $85-$109
  • Catalytic converter replacement $641-$1154
  • Tire replacement: $61-$77 per tire
  • Wheel/rim repair/replacement: $82-$157 per wheel

Perhaps the reader can beat the average by learning where his or her catalytic converter is located. With that knowledge combined with quick reflexes, the driver might avoid hitting that expensive part of the car. Or, maybe Chicago’s lower cost average for repairs indicates that we’ve largely mastered such skills.

2010 and beyond

So, do the winters of 2007-2009 predict anything about potholes in the future? Climate change predictions are all over the map – some places will get warmer, others cooler, some wetter and other drier. It bears repeating that weather and temperatures have less to do with actual road conditions than municipalities’ allocation to road building and repair.

Which boils it down to budgets and political will. Both of these are affected by public opinion and activism. Demands for better road repair and general maintenance need to trump other priorities, which renders it an open question.

But as everyone knows, politics in Chicago never ceases to be entertaining. Pass the chicken, Mr. Mayor?