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Hate the pothole. Love the filler.

By June 8, 2009July 8th, 2014No Comments

Spend 20 minutes watching TV news and you’d think the biggest transportation problem today is the auto industry. Bailouts, bankruptcies and acquisitions by foreign companies command the lion’s share of media attention – enough so that we forget about another very expensive transportation problem affecting virtually every driver in the country.

That problem is potholes. We see them in the dead of winter in northern towns, but also in semi-tropical cities like Miami and Honolulu. We drive like NASCAR professionals to avoid hitting them and mostly succeed – until we don’t, and end up with flat tires or worse. Come spring and summer we curse them if they are still there, unfilled, almost as much as we yell during traffic tie-ups due to road repair work.

Conspiracy theories are abundant in the blogosphere, suggesting a linkage between municipalities and the auto repair industry (however, none of that is supported by the evidence). But along with those other certainties of life, death and taxes, it seems that potholes are a universal experience. Frustration and dollars add up.

But all is not lost – improvements are on the way. Tire and auto dealers provide online advice to drivers on how to manage their way through pothole season. Municipalities test alternatives to road salt, which can corrode reinforcement bars in roads and bridges. And engineers are devising new methods for pothole and road repair, making pothole fillers last longer and street construction sturdier.

A grim accounting

And in case you know anyone at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) or TRIP, a national transportation research group, don’t invite him or her to your next backyard barbecue. The conversation could not be cheerful. In their seminal report, Rough Roads Ahead, Fix Them Now or Pay for It Later, it appears as if we’re due for a few tire blowouts and much worse in taxes in the future. Here are some of their findings:

  • As much as 20 percent of the Interstate Highway System is rated mediocre or poor.
  • Forty percent of rural roads are in less-than good condition.
  • Sixty percent of urban roads are in poor condition.
  • Drivers themselves spend an average $335 per year in vehicle operating costs, with those costs a much higher $746 per year in certain urban areas where repairs are more frequent and more expensive.

The report notes that $27 billion dollars are designated by Congress in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 (the “stimulus bill”) to go to highway projects. But AASHTO’s research also shows that an investment of $166 billion needs to be spent each year in highways and bridges. That’s a trillion dollars on road infrastructure alone in the next six years.

Rough Roads Ahead also provides a few cautionary tales. One is that a road allowed to deteriorate over 25 years will cost three times more to repair than a road that was maintained over the same number of years. Traffic growth of 41 percent from 1990 through 2007 exceeds population growth, which shows no sign of abating any time soon. While the bulk of this traffic is in urban areas, freight truck traffic on the 50-year old Interstate highway system carries 80 percent of the freight tonnage moving across the country – that’s 10,500 trucks per day crossing every mile of the system. Recession-strapped state coffers fall short of simply maintaining the poor levels of roads they have currently – stimulus funds will only bring them back to parity, at best, with better economic times.

This should hardly be a point of controversy. Potholes cost everyone money. Preventing potholes saves money. An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. So why aren’t potholes being fixed in a timelier fashion?

With all due credit, most municipalities are doing the best they can. They get the phone calls, see the television news “pothole cam” reporting, and hear about it from taxpayer organizations. They truly want solutions, and strive to find new ways of doing things, but resources are limited, more so under adverse weather conditions. We could hardly blame them if they also pray for a mild winter.

Throw-and-go pothole fillers that last?

Traditionally, the pockmarked streets find their easiest and cheapest fix with application of hot-mix asphalt, administered from slow-moving trucks by municipal employees who are greeted as heroes in most neighborhoods. But everyone knows how these fixes deteriorate over time – pothole filler can work loose or settles deeper than intact pavement in just a few weeks. An ordinary avenue in places like Cleveland, Wichita, Miami or Los Angeles can be worthy of an SUV television ad – lots of jarring bumps, as challenging as an off-road trail in the Sierra Nevadas.

Newer approaches to pothole repair show promise of creating something better. Some technologies work longer – they hold the hole, so to speak, for longer lengths of time – and some even offer “green” advantages over traditional hot-mix approaches.

I did the math. If it cost $10 to patch a pothole one time, and I had to patch 12 times a year, then $20 or $30 to patch it once a year would save me both labor time and material costs. Using this product we are able to do a better utility cut and do it faster.

Several state departments of transportation have begun using permanent cold asphalt mix, which employ polymer-modified technology to guarantee a more permanent pothole repair. The mix provides several benefits in both application and long term wear:

  • Instant “throw and go” readiness for traffic – road crews tamp it down and cars can traverse it seconds later.
  • Can be applied in all weather conditions – no waiting for warmer or cooler temperatures.
  • Can be applied in water, including those “hidden” potholes that look like mere puddles to unsuspecting drivers.
  • No special mixing required, nor do the potholes need extensive preparation other than clearing loose debris – this means road repair crews can cover more territory in less time.

Use of cold-mix asphalt began long ago and is finding fans. Some DOT chiefs have gone on record about the use and economics of this newer cold-mix technology:

  • Millersville, Tennessee: “I did the math. If it cost $10 to patch a pothole one time, and I had to patch 12 times a year, then $20 or $30 to patch it once a year would save me both labor time and material costs. Using this product we are able to do a better utility cut and do it faster.”
  • Hialeah, Florida: [Cold asphalt] is easier to apply with hand tools for small patch jobs, and we do not have to go back and revisit potholes like before. For larger patches it is easily applied with a backhoe loader bucket and it does not stick to our equipment, truck beds or hand tools, making cleanup much easier. The benefits…in our utility patching clearly outweigh the incremental cost for it.”
  • Somers (Westchester County) New York: “We have used cold asphalt with the hopes of just getting us through the winter until we can replace with hot asphalt after the weather turns warmer. [Now] I know that I will not have to take the time to go back to the spots that we repaired in the winter. This is saving our town time and money.”

Summoning their inner Mario Andretti

Individual drivers are conducting their own independent efforts, with the help of the auto industry, to fight back as well. An association of Honda dealerships in the New York City area provides this defensive driving advice to customers on their website:

  • Hitting a pothole can throw your car’s front end out of alignment. If you feel your car “pulling” as you drive, you could have a problem. Check the tread on your tires. If you find uneven treadwear, it could be a sign of misalignment. If you hit a severe pothole, have a tire dealer check your vehicle’s alignment and tire balance.
  • Damage to your tire and/or the metal wheel of your vehicle can occur when you hit a pothole. Keeping your tires properly inflated helps reduce damage from potholes and other road hazards.
  • The impact of potholes on tires increases dramatically depending on the speed at which your vehicle travels. This can cause hidden, internal damage that could lead to tire failure weeks, or even months, later. For these reasons, it is best to avoid potholes entirely. If that’s not possible, avoid braking during pothole impact. Instead, apply your brakes before hitting a pothole and release them just prior to impact. (Braking during impact sets up the tire and wheel assembly for a “solid hit” against the edge of the hole. Less severe damage occurs when a tire rolls over a pothole than when it skids during braking.)

Taking matters into their own hands, here is a sampling of advice from one blog site, dedicated to drivers of the VW Golf GTI, on avoiding flat tires from potholes:

Subject line: Pothole resistant tires

I’ve only had my ’09 GTI 4-door for about a month (maybe less) and I’ve already blown out a tire on a pothole (I hit it avoiding another one at night in wet roads). I love my 18″, but New Jersey is riddled with potholes and I’m a little nervous about how many more times I’m going to have to deal with NOT having it covered under roadside assistance and having to change my tire in the mud. Obviously if I were stronger and able to hold the tire in place while I put it back on, it wouldn’t be a big deal. :p but there aren’t even bolts to stick out and mount the tire on. So cheap. My question is, are there any tires out there that are thicker and more durable in the face of potholes for an 18″ wheel?

Responding to that, a thread of several dozen respondents covered the pros and cons of over-inflation of tires, either to create greater flat resilience (at the expense of ride comfort) or to enable sharper, more agile cornering so the driver can avoid potholes altogether. If they were Honda drivers on Long Island, they’d know the answer to this question. Clearly, it’s a hot topic, and the solutions might be as varied as the country’s different drivers and vehicles.

So there you have it. Potholes are a big, fat problem. They’re ubiquitous and inevitable. Minimizing damage and costs associated with those damages will not come with a one-fix silver bullet. It’s a matter of timely funding, spending those funds smartly, innovation – and knowing how to drive.

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