Can One Chicago Pothole Miracle Be Repeated?

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The election of Rahm Emanuel to the mayor’s office in Chicago without a runoff – he garnered 55 percent of the vote in the February election, enough to save voters and the city the hassle and expense of a runoff election – is regarded as a minor miracle in this most political of cities. And that’s a good thing, because the cash-strapped metropolis, like so many others, can use the money for other things. Not the least of which is repairs to the Windy City’s infrastructure – including the potholes.

But my own Chicago miracle came a few weeks earlier, and it had everything to do a pothole. Specifically, a big, gaping, Volkswagen-jarring pothole on the Foster Street rise on Lake Shore Drive. I hit it twice, two days in a row, as I headed toward downtown in the southbound side of the famous parkway. So after the second hit, I did what I heard we could do: I called the non-emergency 3-1-1 city services line.

I half expected I would end up blogging about the series of fruitless phone calls I would make about that darn pothole. Chicago is a city of aldermanic wards, where seeking help with a municipal problem is thought to require knowing your alderman or alderwoman. But I didn’t go that route. I just went through the standard, know-nobody system. Surely, I thought, the 3-1-1 program is just public relations, a bureaucratic black hole that goes deeper than any pothole anywhere on The Drive, the Kennedy, the Eisenhower, the Stevenson or any of the presidents’ streets (Washington, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, etc.).

Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. The City of Chicago fixed this pothole in less than 24 hours. The night after I phoned it in, I drove slow enough over that rise and in the lane to the immediate right side of the pothole. In place of a jagged crevice in the road, that chuckhole (what potholes are sometimes called), had a smooth, blacker-than-the-rest-of-the-road face. Chicago Streets & Sanitation workers really outdid themselves on this. It was a pothole no more.

What it takes to get a pothole fixed in Chicago

Perhaps it was due to the fact that Lake Shore Drive is a major thoroughfare. The parkway’s Main Branch Chicago Bridge handles 112,000 cars every day – commercial vehicles prohibited, it should be noted – and this particular section connects the near-North Shore suburbs of the city (Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka and others) to downtown. Several miles of this part of Lake Shore Drive was a virtual battlefield of potholes in the winter of 2008-2009, after which a major pavement preservation program restored it to cruising beauty the following summer (summoning the old pothole-related joke about there only being two seasons in Chicago: winter and construction).

In fact, there are thousands of potholes in the city, like any other city, that need filling.  At mid-February, just two weeks after the Groundhog’s Day Blizzard of 2011, various media outlets reported on the condition of Chicago-area roads:

  • Although winter’s worst might be behind us, stretches of roadway are still causing problems for drivers as they swerve around the potholes popping up across the city and suburbs. And in many cases, melting ice and snow are the culprit. “We welcome the spring,” Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Bobby Ware said Tuesday. “But we also welcome our pothole temperatures.” (Chicago Tribune, February 15, 2011)
  • Drive with care. Pothole season is here. Due to the melting snow during the day and freezing temperatures at night, potholes are starting to pop up on the Chicago area’s streets. The City of Chicago received 400 reports on Monday of potholes. “The good news is it’s not as bad as a couple of winters ago,” said Brian Steele, of the city’s Department of Transportation. “Since December 1st, we’re only at about 84,000 potholes.” (WGN-TV, February 15, 2011)
  • The warm-up around Chicagoland is definitely welcome, but one thing that comes with it isn’t: potholes. City officials expect the number of pothole reports to spike this week. They said at a press conference Tuesday morning that there were 400 calls to 311 Monday and warned the worst is still ahead. The warm-up will provide the thaw part of the pothole cycle, and we’ve been in the deep freeze a long time now. The expanding and contracting asphalt, along with the rumble of traffic will stress many areas on Chicago’s streets, will cause the cracks Chicagoans despise. (Fox News Chicago Reporter Joanie Lum, February 15, 2011)

Almost every news report urges Chicago residents to report their pothole-peeves to the city through the 3-1-1 system. When contacting them, be sure to provide as much detail on the location of the pothole (address or section of road, which lanes, and approximate size of the pothole or potholes).

The phone-in system is pretty easy – one call does it all if you can adequately describe the location of the pothole and its approximate size. The online system is relatively easy too, asking for that much information as well as who you are, where you live and how you can be contacted. Once you file the online report, you receive a confirmation e-mail that includes a tracking number and a link to a status query page. To follow up on progress, you can phone back to the 3-1-1 system with the tracking number to find out the status of the order.

All great cities are about great pavement

That early February snowstorm might have spelled political disaster under different circumstances. Former Mayor Jane Byrne won her seat in 1979 after the incumbent, Michael Bilandic, was widely blamed for botching the cleanup after another early-February snowstorm that dumped 35 inches on the streets of Chicago that year, Lake Shore Drive included. Byrne was saddled with pothole repairs in the aftermath – literally and metaphorically speaking – which stretched into the full four years of her term before she was bounced from office by Harold Washington in 1983. But in 2011, long-time Mayor Richard M. Daley was retiring and no candidate was so strongly attached to him that the snow cleanup – which went relatively well, except for an overnight 700-car logjam on the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive – influenced the election.

And so go the political fortunes of Chicago’s mayors. The Chicago Tribune opined in January upon what is to come for the new mayor when he or she took office later in the spring. Rethinking the city’s aldermanic-ward system – which in the case of my Lake Shore Drive pothole repair proved unimportant – is what the paper believes can help the city meet future infrastructure challenges.

Many aldermanic candidates seem determined to preserve Chicago’s 50 fiefdoms as service delivery zones, regardless of cost. They’re still wedded to the city’s inefficient ward system for snow removal or garbage pickup, for example, despite the savings that would be realized by using a grid plan that ignores ward boundaries. They know residents are far more focused on potholes than pensions, and we get that, too. But something has to give — and that can’t only mean the taxpayers.

I’ve seen a miracle with a pothole on Lake Shore Drive, so I know it is possible. Now let’s see if the miracles can multiply themselves by a factor of about 300,000, the estimated number that need to be repaired in Chicago sometime in 2011.