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Pothole Cratered Highways, Coast to Coast Potholes and Beyond

By January 25, 2011 July 8th, 2014 No Comments

In the business of potholes, when the weather is coldest is actually when things really heat up.

We are talking heated emotions over damages to vehicles from potholes. And heated pressure on road crews and politicians. Sometimes, a hot asphalt mix is used to repair the potholes found in highways to fix them. But in the coldest environs, a temporary cold patch mix is more often used for pothole repair. Unfortunately, temporary cold patch mix often needs to be refilled just a week or two later.

“The problem with the cold patch material, it is a temporary fix,” said Doug Fischer, Anoka County (Minnesota) Highways Engineer, to a local newspaper.  “On a high volume road, that may only last a couple of days. It seems like a pothole never gets fixed. [But] it gets fixed five or ten times.”

Note that there are high- and low-quality cold patch. The latter is most often used, but the former lasts longer. The sense that lower-priced material costs less might be an illusion if labor costs for multiple repairs are not factored in. Almost universally, in the U.S. and other countries, road maintenance budgets are strapped and inadequate for the needs as presented.

But it’s not just the traditionally cold places during the Winter of 2011 that are experiencing potholes. Oh sure, in Toronto, Buffalo, Chicago, Minneapolis and all of North Dakota, state and local highway departments are battling rough pavement as each gets pelted with snow. But rains up and down the West Coast, including Southern California, plus frigid temperatures they are calling the Big Freeze in the U.K., all add up to the same thing: deterioration of pavement into what is universally called a pothole.

The Upper Midwest Potholes: Costly to Taxpayers, Costly to Industry

Fans of the movie “Fargo” might not be blamed for knowing this, but the state of North Dakota is a bit of an economic powerhouse. It has a $24 billion economy overall, and leads the U.S. in production of barley, durum wheat, spring wheat, sunflower seeds and farm-raised turkeys. Food processing companies make use of some of this product, while other raw goods are shipped out of state for processing. But energy is a big part of the economy also, with a known 3-4 billion barrels of untapped oil in the Bakken formation, even while the state is beginning to exploit large expanses of windswept plains in what is called “the Saudi Arabia of wind energy.”

Agriculture and petroleum require roads. Building windmills requires roads. And as of this winter, the North Dakota roads are in trouble.

“We are growing and moving more crops than ever before and that is having a major impact on our already stressed rural road network,” North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Goehring told PrairieBizMag.com. “Yet funding in real dollars for county and local roads has grown only modestly in recent years, while construction costs have soared.” He is reflecting on a study that says funding for rural roads is essential for the state’s economy.

But North Dakota, along with South Dakota and Minnesota are de-paving some roads altogether, turning them back to gravel. “Most of those guys (farmers) are tired of dodging the potholes,” said Richland County (North Dakota) Engineer Tim Schulte to the Wahpeton Daily News. “They’re probably not even using the road because it’s in such poor condition, where if we got it to at least a gravel road they’d probably start using it again. Most people don’t want to lose the pavement, but realize that there’s really no other alternative.”

Counties and the state highway departments are trying to judiciously maintain the roads that are most necessary. But with a reorganization of where grain elevators are located – farther away than before, due to consolidation and changing technologies – and a reduction in railway lines, grain is being moved by semi-trucks instead of single tandem axle trucks. It all adds up to heavier truck usage, more wear and tear on roads, potholes – and greater pressure to maintain those roads. The winter of 2011 has not made this situation any better.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, the winter is taking no prisoners.

In Minnesota, MnDOT took advantage of a warm spell just before New Years to patch up some potholes before the New Years weekend. But as anyone as smart as a sixth grader knows, freeze thaw cycles like that are what make the problem worse. A private contractor told Fox News Twin Cities that they expect Minnesota’s largest metropolitan area will have potholes “far worse than last year.”

Such pothole problems are not confined to the Upper Midwest. In Cincinnati, WLWT-TV reports that city crews are stretched between snow plowing and pothole repairs. A storm on January 11 sent many drivers to tire and wheel repair shops, and as one shop owner told television reporters, “The worst is yet to come, especially after this last storm we had. [The potholes are] building up.” Situated at the convergence of three states – Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky – area residences are asked to report potholes via hotline numbers to the respective state authorities.

Things got so bad with one street in Mason City, Iowa that city engineers had two blocks of streets paved temporarily in gravel. They hoped continuous freezing temperatures would keep those streets solid – waiting for spring to repave them – but warm spells were uncooperative. Potholes in the gravel have formed as well, which them temporarily fill with more gravel.

The Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois already saw freeze-thaw cycles by early January. “And when we get that,” said Will County Engineer Bruce Gould to Naperville Patch, a community news website, “roads just start popping. The more we get, the worse the road system gets. And of course, the salt doesn’t help any because we put salt on the road and that draws the moisture.”

The temperature fluctuation between Christmas and New Years affected the roads around Lafayette, Indiana as well. INDOT spokesperson Debbie Calder told the Journal & Courier/JCOnline.com that crews are using a technique known as “total patching.” This involves clearing loose pothole debris, spraying the inside of the hole with hot oil and filling it with patching material. The patch is temporary and can disintegrate with the next snowfall, but is intended to last just long enough for permanent repairs in the spring and summer.

Both ends of New York, plus California

A bit further east, in Buffalo, the winter falls somewhere in the “average” category, which of course means lots of snow. This so far included a few storms that qualified for national media attention. The one that got the most coverage was simply a narrow band of lake (Erie) effect snow, but it tied up the western section of the New York State Thruway for 24 hours, consequently a line up of several miles of vehicles didn’t move for a full day. Meanwhile, the NBC-TV affiliate, WGRZ-TV, reports “It is hard to go down any city street without noticing a depression, divot, or pothole…which this time of year seem to sprout like dandelions on a lawn in May.” They make it almost sound pretty.

Buffalo Commissioner of Public Works Steve Stepniak says the city depends on citizens to report potholes. “We need those things to be called in,” he told the television station. ” If they call it in to 3-1-1 it helps us, because remember we’re covering 1,600 lane miles within the city proper…and it’s a great tool for our maintenance yard because it actually goes directly to them, so they can get out there and take a look.”

Stepniak says the city provides a 48-hour turnaround between when a pothole is called in to the 3-1-1 system and when the hole gets filled.

New York City has had, of course, a couple of well-publicized storms. Snow removal is what has consumed the public’s attention. But the experienced New York Department of Transportation (NYDOT) employee probably is keeping a watchful eye on the freeze-thaw cycles and how potholes can render Broadway, Madison Avenue or Central Park West veritable obstacle courses. And it will take a miracle on 34th Street to get them all repaired by spring.

A little north and a little west in Toronto, they keep accurate counts on how many potholes are filled annually. The counts going back three years: 277,000 potholes filled in 2008, followed by 253,409 potholes in 2009 and 179,462 potholes in 2010. The drop last year was due to milder weather and road resurfacing projects the previous year, but harsher weather that began in December 2010 portends more potholes in 2011.

But the Canadians are probably better off than their Commonwealth sisters in the U.K. Exceptionally cold temperatures there in December and early January are being collectively referred to as the Big Freeze. Places such as Cumbria are riddled with potholes, while the AA (the British automobile association) are seeing car insurance claims related to pothole damage costing as much as 1300 pounds sterling. Reportedly, this and last winter were particularly brutal on the roadways due to heavy freezes.

Back on the U.S. side of the pond, California cities including Los Angeles, San Bernadino and Long Beach have their hands full of damage from the torrential rains of December and January. This brings home the idea that it isn’t simply freeze-thaw cycles that undermine the integrity of pavement. In fact, it is always moisture – which California has had in spades. According to the U.S. Weather Service, December was the wettest year on record in Southern California. It gets into cracks, it erodes the sub-pavement and heavy traffic then crumbles the unsupported top layer forming potholes.

While California is thought to be the trendsetter in many ways, it’s the Motor City that introduced some new, big ideas on dealing with potholes. At the 2011 Detroit Auto Show in mid-January, automaker Hyundai introduced the Curb, a concept car that bills itself an “Urban Activity Vehicle,” which its designers said would be “at home in an urban environment with potholes and densely packed nightclubs on the streets.”

It’s not too often you hear potholes and nightclubs lumped together in the same context. But with the weather and aftermath of winter in full flower (as they might say in Buffalo), leaving potholes in its wake from sea to shining sea, maybe the idea of making your way through potholes while spending a night out on the town might just be what people need during the cold season of broken pavement.