Winter 2011 May Bring Average Conditions – And Extraordinary Potholes – to the NYC Tri-State Region

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The La Nina weather pattern is in force in the Pacific Ocean off Chile, and that means less snow in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut tri-state region. At least, that’s what the National Weather Service is predicting – a forecast that more or less concurs with the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which makes its predictions based on sunspots, tidal waves and astrological positions. Says the Almanac: “Colder than normal winter temperatures” will prevail, but snowfall slightly below average.

But the question on the minds of all – once you get past the discomfort and inconvenience of freeze-your-hair-off winds and rush-hour blizzard conditions – is what will happen with the potholes. Will the exit ramps off the Major Deegan Expressway inflict mortal damage to your wheel rims come March?  When borough traversing on the Cross Bronx Expressway, will you need to summon your inner NASCAR skills to avoid the chuckholes that otherwise spell doom to your axel? Will it be worse traveling in Westchester County than, say the Merritt Parkway in CT or I-78 in, around or through Newark?

Time will tell, but there’s plenty to be worried about. Think back to the middle of May 2010, when the Metropolitan Transit Authority bridge and tunnel division announced they were changing all pothole repairs and highway sign maintenance to the graveyard shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. That agency was working on closing a $400 million budget shortfall – a problem facing highway maintenance departments from sea to shining sea in America – and make no mistake, this was more about savings than it was traffic improvement. But now, instead of paying crews overtime to fix the potholes at night, they are working at regular wages.

Said MTA chief Jay Walder, there “isn’t anything the drivers will notice, unless in a good way, because we’re doing things at times when it’s less disruptive to them.”

Better pothole filling technologies

Walder has more tools to accomplish that than did his predecessors ten or more years ago.

The world of road paving and maintenance has improved considerably since the 1990s, due to a federally funded initiative called the Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP). The program looked at new techniques and technologies that can address problems that are becoming more prevalent in the country’s aging infrastructure (given how massive road building projects under Robert Moses and the Eisenhower Administration happened 50 or more years ago).

SHRP research, conducted through both universities and private companies, studied the intrinsic nature of traffic, weather, asphalt, concrete and how local and state maintenance and safety programs were run. From this research, more than 100 new products were developed and shared with public highway maintenance entities.

What does this have to do with potholes in Passaic? Plenty. One of the breakthroughs of the research was the Superpave program (the name is trademarked), which breaks down into three parts:

  • Asphalt binder specifications that account for installation logistics as much as longevity.
  • A design and analysis system, based on the volumetric properties of an asphalt mix.
  • Models for mix-analysis tests and performance prediction (i.e., knowing better how to adapt the asphalt formulation to specific roads)

Most important in the full breadth of SHRP research was designing pavement to fit variables in climate and traffic conditions. After all, a pretty but less-traveled road through the Poconos is going to experience different wear-and-tear than the Long Island Expressway, just as that highway is different from, say, any road in Arizona.

When it comes to asphalt installation and longevity, a breakthrough was the development of premium cold mix. Typically, asphalt is heated in a plant to give the petroleum-aggregate stone mix elasticity, enabling the mix to form to cracks and potholes in the road. The problem is that hot mix cools off within a few hours, especially in winter, such that a truckload of hot mix might need to return to the plant for expensive reprocessing in order to get it sufficiently warm enough to use. With cold mix, the product can be stored on highway property for months and used on an as-needed basis.

Good cold and bad cold (asphalt mix, not weather)

Note, there are different grades of cold mix asphalt. Lower grades tend to be used in emergencies, when a hole emerges overnight and needs to be fixed to enable a smoother morning rush hour. Unfortunately, that pothole patch might last about as long as it takes to drive from the Upper East Side to Montauk on a cold afternoon in January.

Premium grade (example: EZ Street Cold Asphalt) is another story. It costs a bit more than both hot mix and lower-grade cold mix asphalt, but the savings result in several important ways. First, crews can work from stockpiles, eliminating time-consuming trips to asphalt plants every few hours. More importantly, the longevity of the asphalt reduces the need for repeated repair of the same potholes in a single season, while fewer lawsuits result from motor accidents caused by poorly tended highway. Drivers too benefit when potholes and utility cuts are smoothed over by premium quality cold mix, because traffic flows more smoothly and they suffer less damage to their vehicles from pothole hits.

Of course, all of this is still dependent on budget. TodaysTrucking.com gave a callout to New Jersey as a good example of low administrative costs ($63,000 per mile) associated with state road maintenance expenses, as compared to California’s $100,000 per mile in administration costs. But those are about just the overhead. The real number of concern is how New Jersey spends $1.1 million each year per mile of state highway (California’s is $545,000 per mile). The difference is in part climate related, even though California is just as susceptible to pothole formation due to moisture and heat.

So will the departments of transportation in New York, Newark, East Orange, New Rochelle, White Plains, Commack, Greenwich and Norwalk fight the winter pothole season with a Superpave, premium cold mix strategy? Time will tell. But given the constrained budgetary conditions of each state and municipality, reflecting the cutbacks motorists and companies are experiencing, a smarter pavement maintenance program seems like a good offensive move against winter weather – regardless if the Old Farmer’s Almanac is right or wrong.