First Cold, then Snow, then Potholes – The Cycle of the Seasons Begins Anew for 2011 in Philly, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

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The storms that hit the Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington D.C. area in mid-February 2010 were largely predicted by the Farmers’ Almanac, months before they happened. Editor Sandi Duncan acknowledges their predictions were a bit off – they didn’t expect it would land as far south as it did, which was attributed to a stronger-than-expected El Nino effect – but she uses the case to support their veracity at long-range weather forecasters. The potholes that popped up in the wake of the storms, however, were fairly predictable.

That’s because potholes happen every year, everywhere. Moisture and freeze-thaw cycles contribute to them, but they are also a function of heat, traffic and poor road maintenance. There are as many potholes in Corpus Christi as there are in Camden.

So what is predicted for the mid-Atlantic region for the winter of 2011? “Very cold with average wintry precipitation,” says Caleb Weatherbee (a pseudonym for the “official forecaster” of the Almanac). For the rest of the country, the guide predicts a generally milder winter than in 2010, however the benefits largely go to the southern West Coast, southwest and mountain states, while north of New York bitter cold will accompany average snowfall.

In all those regions, snow or sun, there will be potholes. That’s because all across the country, from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia all the way to Arizona, California and Oregon, the roads are getting older. America’s post-war road building boom was strongest from the 1950s through the 1970s, giving us roads, highways and streets that are, on average, 50 years old. With age naturally comes deterioration, of course.

Higher traffic loads also cause pavement breakdown, and that peaked in 2007; in the years since, the recession actually has reduced auto and truck traffic by a few percentage points. But that recession also means tighter budgets for state, county and city transportation departments. This is a very bad thing where it comes to pothole prevention, unfortunately. As those old roads begin to develop cracks, they are not getting the proper maintenance that would prevent those cracks from growing.

The ways in which potholes develop illustrate this point. Potholes begin when moisture seeps through pavement cracks (or comes in through the side, as might happen in hurricanes and storm surges to coastal highways). That moisture can wear away the under-pavement, composed of gravel on top of soil in most cases. In colder climates, just about everywhere north of Florida, moisture in those spaces under pavement will expand when frozen, causing a temporary lift in the pavement that crumbles with the first heavy car or truck to roll over it. The pavement then crumbles, the underlayment is exposed and the disintegration continues with each passing vehicle and onslaught of precipitation.

The best defense in road preservation is a good offense. Repair smaller cracks and seams, and fill potholes while they are small. It takes a vigilant department of highway maintenance to stay on top of this – and the budget necessary to do so.

What is being done about saving the roads in the Philly-DC corridor?

One indicator of exemplary maintenance is where federal economic stimulus dollars (the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) have been allocated and spent.

That includes $13.4 million to rebuild deteriorated concrete roadbeds plus two interchanges on the SR 422 in Upper Providence, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. In Delaware County, Pa., about the same amount ($13.6 million) was spent on traffic control technologies such as vehicle detectors and travel time readers, which come in handy when road construction or just an inordinate number of potholes appear, slowing traffic. Drivers deserve to know if their planned itinerary will be plagued with delays.

What Pennsylvania is distinguished for is putting their stimulus allocations to work. According to Mary Rucci of the Pennsylvania Stimulus Accountability Office, “PennDOT has really done a marvelous job in getting projects out the door,” she told an Ohio newspaper, the Morning Journal. “In fact, as a result of saving contracts, it has been able to reallocate funds to additional contracts beyond what it thought it could do originally.” Reportedly, the under-utilized construction industry competitively bid down the cost of many projects, which in Pennsylvania meant eight more projects were funded with the savings. Overall, the five-county Philadelphia region has spent $257 million on 30 projects. That includes such projects as $164,800 spent to preserve or resurface Valley Road in Edgmont, Pa.

In Maryland, the state received $317 million in highway funding alone from the stimulus. Those dollars went to replacing the Liberty Road bridge over the Beltway, plus widening and improving Route 404, the highway that services the Delaware beach region. Also, $11.5 million was spent on resurfacing the Capital Beltway between the Potomac River and I-270 in Montgomery County, $10.9 million to rehabilitate the Northern Parkway in Baltimore (between Park Heights Avenue and Falls Road) and $10.9 million spent on Orleans Street, from Wolfe Street to Central Avenue in Baltimore.

Not all asphalt is the same

The nice, smooth ribbon of a new or repaved road makes all the headaches of potholes go away. But eventually, all roads endure the same deterioration.

However, a federally funded research program launched in the late 1980s has led to smarter road building and road repair. The trucks of steaming hot mix asphalt are a familiar sight at road construction and repair sites, but research has found that asphalt can be formulated for different climatic conditions and traffic loads. Also, cheaper cold mix asphalt is ideal for temporary detours, on and off ramps, and utility cuts, while a more permanent, premium (and somewhat more expensive) cold asphalt mix is now used by many highway departments to do quality pothole repair – the kinds of fixes that can last for years without divots and deterioration.

These asphalt technologies come along just in time for the Great American Road Breakdown, the phenomenon of 50-year-old streets and highways giving in to time. With better asphalt technologies, repairs can forestall complete rebuilding of a highway by many years, where an investment of $1 can mean saving $7 in repairs that would happen a year or two later.

Those potholes have a way of growing when no one is paying attention to them – regardless of whether winter conditions are mild or monstrous.