Chicago’s most trusted meteorologist, Tom Skilling, dares to guide the 8 million people in the greater Chicago metro area through some of the country’s most harsh and unpredictable weather. From his perch as chief weathercaster on WGN-TV and the Chicago Tribune, he is the point of first consult every morning for those who plan to venture outside – spring, summer and fall, but most especially, in winter. The frigid season of 2010-2011 is expected to be no different.
And while the nature of what he does is based on winds and moisture and pressure systems miles above the earth’s surface, his focus of course is on how it affect people on the ground. That includes the ground itself – and road pavement – as in how potholes form and affect traffic.
In a particularly chilly stretch of several weeks in January 2009, it was Skilling who reported that longtime mayor Richard Daley was admitting the degree of pothole damage to the city’s streets had become unmanageable.
“City Hall’s 21 pothole repair crews have been dispatched across the city, filling an average of 3,700 potholes a day over the first eight days of the year,” he wrote. “But Daley said hundreds of new reports come in each day and thousands of potholes remain unplugged. ‘When snow and ice are packed in the street, it’s nearly impossible for crew to make any pothole repairs,’ the mayor said. ‘It is difficult to work with cold patch material in sub-zero temperatures. It pops up … It’s frozen when you put it down.’”
The mayor, and Skilling’s reporting, touched on a common problem with mid-winter pothole repairs. But neither made the distinction between lower-quality asphalt material and premium cold asphalt. Just north of the city, in Evanston Township, the streets department was working with a different kind of high-performance cold asphalt (EZ Street brand). This clip shows both when the repairs were made during that same cold stretch in January 2009, as well as 10 months later, after the patch had been through spring, summer and fall.
Unlike Mayor Daley’s lament about pothole patches that pop up, it bears noting that Evanston streets foreman Don Cornelius said, “It held up real well, it didn’t push out in the summertime.”
Chicago is predicted to get a colder than normal winter, with very cold periods in December, late January and mid-February 2011. Precipitation (snowfall) will also be near or slightly above normal, with a snowstorm predicted for the latter part of January. In the 120-year history of weather record keeping, Chicago has had 19 days of snowfall totaling more than 10 inches, including an 18.6 inch snowfall on January 2, 1999, which was part of a three-day storm bringing in 21.6 inches overall. In terms of annual snowfall accumulation, the 2009-2010 winter had a relatively large total of 54.3 inches. The winter of 2008-2009 was close behind with 52.7 inches, but both were eclipsed by the 60.3 inches that fell in 2007-2008. Compare those to a string of mild winters in the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, which included the 1988-1989 winter’s mere 24.5 inches of accumulation.
Potholes meet their match
To hardy Midwesterners, the past isn’t prologue. Every winter is different. But inevitably, the true cost after the sidewalks and driveways are shoveled and the roads are plowed, comes in damages to cars as a result of potholes.
It’s an old story with a thousand chapters. The trail leading to auto repair shops (pothole hits can blow out tires, damage wheel rims, break axles and can cause a car to crack its catalytic converter) can start below the earth, as it did in north suburban Lake County in January 2010. A water main break under Route 43, a state road, caused existing pavement to heave up. This would surely be a traffic-stopper if left untended. So as detailed in this clip, crews dug down more than 12 inches to prep for a permanent fix using EZ Street premium cold asphalt, done in four “lifts” (layers, separately laid and compacted).
That was on a balmy 30-degree winter day. Just a week later in another Chicago suburb, Westmont, the temperatures were 5 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) – the kind of temperature dip that keeps weathercaster Tom Skilling busy, and which inevitably leads to freeze-thaw cycles and road damage that results in potholes. It was just another day when a utility cut needed to be repaired, so crews in this video demonstrated how the cold mix product was still pliable in arctic conditions.
The winter of 2009-2010 in the Chicago area was relatively mild, pothole-wise. The Chicago Tribune reported in April, the moment between potholes and road construction and repair season, that the 225,000 potholes patched that year was a “substantial drop from previous winters.” The preceding winter (2008-2009) saw more than 350,000 potholes repaired, while 450,000 potholes were patched in the winter before that (2007-2008), according to the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT).
Why the diminishing numbers? CDOT says it was due to combination of factors, primarily fewer freeze-thaw cycles (i.e., more consistent stretches of freezing temperatures) and that 31 miles of city arterial streets had been resurfaced from the 2009 federal economic stimulus package.
“Last winter, we were filling tens of thousands of potholes on the pothole-plagued streets, and we were out to those locations [where streets have since been resurfaced] several times,’ said CDOT’s Brian Steele to the Chicago Tribune. “This time, we’ve not been out there once.” Steele says their crews work seven days a week during the height of the season, even though complaints were down last winter. But he knows the law of atrophy applies to pavement as much as pyramids and people. There will be more potholes developing in Chicago – and the department wants to be informed.
“Please report a pothole when you see it,” Steele says. “There are more than 3,800 miles of streets in Chicago, and potholes can occur on any of the streets. And we depend on the eyes and ears of the citizens to help us find the locations.”
Chicago is a little behind the curve on pothole reporting. The city’s 3-1-1 non-emergency hotline is the primary place to call in a pothole complaint. But that requires the reporting citizen to remember to make the call, accurately describe a location, and for the human being at the 311 center to gather that information and send it to appropriate CDOT officials for attention. Multiply that times tens of thousands, and it’s understandable if there are some mistakes made in reporting. In other cities – Boston, Portland (Oregon), Charlotte (North Carolina) and Los Angeles, to name a few – citizen smartphone apps are now streamlining that process considerably. The individual needs only to point, shoot and send, providing a visual as well as GPS pinpoint location – eliminating the opportunity for human error in the process.
Who pays when potholes inflict damage?
For motorists whose cars are damaged by a pothole, the city will compensate, on valid claims, for half of the repair cost, up to $2000. City Council member Donal Quinlan told the Chicago Tribune, “The logic is the driver may have had some chance to avoid the damage.” Claim forms can be obtained through the city clerk’s office.
But some claims fall into no-man’s-land sometimes. When there is a dispute on a claim, it might be about which government body is responsible – the city, county or state. Driver Sharon Brennan found out about that the hard way in the nearby suburb of Winnetka. She had sustained a blown tire, which ended up costing $147.66 to repair. The village of Winnetka refused to cover any costs because the road on which she was driving (Green Bay Road) is under the jurisdiction of the state of Illinois. But efforts to collect the damages from the state were unsuccessful as well. “Green Bay Road is under the jurisdiction of the state of Illinois, but all surface maintenance is the responsibility of the village, and any associated liability is the responsibility of the village,” said Illinois Department of Transportation spokesperson Josh Kauffman in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.
When Brennan went back to the village to refile her claim with that information, the village refused her request for $147.66, saying there had been no report of the pothole to them prior to her mishap. Winnetka, population 12,419, has a median household income of $277,371 and a median home value of $1.5 million.
The nearby city of Rockford, Illinois has a population of 150,000 people and surprisingly far fewer claims of pothole damage on its streets. In 2009, the municipality only paid out on 15 pothole-damage claims for a total of $5,792.36.
Why so few claims and such a small payout? Most residents were, until recently, unaware they could collect anything at all. But the standard for a successful claim is high, as it is in many cities (including Chicago). The pothole that caused your damage necessarily needs to have been reported prior to your accident and gone unrepaired by city work crews.
But the city’s legal director, Patrick Hayes, also says that minimal road maintenance prior to 2007 simply has led to more potholes than in previous years. But a new infrastructure sales tax in the past two years has raised more funds to catch up a bit on repairs. But make no mistake – Rockford has its share of potholes. And the bureaucratic costs are not limited to those payouts. From the city’s risk management budget, an estimated $216,000 was paid out in 2009 to cover insurance, legal claims and judgments.
Since more people became aware they can make claims in Rockford, “it’s been a tremendous work spike for our Public Works Department and Legal Department to deal with all of the claims,” says Hayes.
Cities like Rockford, Chicago, Winnetka, Evanston and Westmont (as well as Oak Brook, Joliet, Springfield, Kankakee, Champaign-Urbana, Normal, Bloomington, Decatur and Naperville) should all benefit from a $100 million fund announced by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn in September. The funds are dedicated to helping cities and towns repave roads or otherwise repair potholes, as well as maintain bridges, install traffic signals, construct storm sewers and sidewalks and build bicycle paths.
The state has already invested $8 billion in federal and state dollars since 2009 in roads and bridges. It has been part of why pothole incidence is down. With an investment in pavement preservation, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – and a few tons less of car repairs and damage claims.