Seattle Grapples with Pothole Paloozza 2011

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In a city known more for grunge bands, coffee, rain and Nordstrom’s, there emerges a new phenomenon that has the citizenry buzzing.

Yup, it’s potholes. All that rain – and this winter, a good dose of snow as well – has to go somewhere. Where there are cracks in the pavement, that includes in and under the asphalt, leading to a proliferation of potholes that required filling 91 percent more chuckholes in January 2011 than January of last year. Unbowed, the city launched a new pothole-repair tracking website to keep motorists informed on the progress.

The problems with pothole-riddled pavement began earlier in December, when MyNorthwest.com reported the city was doubling the number of pothole repair crews, from two to four. The website reported on December 23 that city spokesperson Rick Sheridan place the blame on two factors: excess rain and aging infrastructure.

Just two weeks later, the press and commentariat were abuzz with complaints on where the potholes were – and who was to blame. Crosscut.com reported, “One thing is clear: Seattle’s potholes are blooming.” The hyperlocal blog reported that the city’s Department of Transportation, SDOT, carries the Seattle Pothole Information center at http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/potholes/, including a color-coded map and a weekly report on progress, broken down into five categories:

  • Outstanding pothole requests
  • Pothole requests initiated
  • Pothole requests closed (those fixed, and those found to be duplicates)
  • Potholes repaired

The accompanying map breaks down specific potholes into four different categories: New requests, work in progress, potholes filled in the preceding 90 days and a 12-month history of pothole repairs.

Given how many throw-and-go pothole repairs begin disintegrating a few weeks after being fixed, one imagines a lot of overlap between the recently fixed and the new request sites.

Crosscut.com continues its report, noting that “[Mayor Mike] McGinn stated that there are nearly something like three-times more potholes this winter than last, mostly because of rain and snow and ice, according to Seattle Department of Transportation supervisors. The freeze-thaw cycle can play havoc with the streets, and Seattle is not the only Washington city seeing a bumper crop of potholes. Spokane is dealing with an unprecedented proliferation as well.”

Despite that last sentence, noting that potholes are subject to regional weather and other influences, the blog notes that all Seattle mayors, current and former, are implicated in pothole-ribbed city streets.

“Potholes are how Seattleites judge effectiveness,” said Knute Berger, Crosscut reporter. “Can the mayor fix ’em? [Former mayor] Greg Nickel’s launched the war with his “Pothole Rangers” and personally donned a helmet and went on patrol. [Another former mayor] Paul Schell reputedly made political points by becoming a pothole-repair vigilante. A mayor who can’t smooth the streets is in trouble. And it’s not just about cars: potholes can injure pedestrians and cyclists too.”

Which are big concepts, as SDOT reports that 36 percent of the city’s half-million residents engage in recreational bicycling, and 8,000 people commute to their jobs there during the summer. Seattle has an equally pedestrian-friendly culture and infrastructure.

The Seattle Times, a daily newspaper, opened a January 5 article with the line, “WELCOME to Seattle, City of Potholes.” It too took to task mayors, current and former, for their attempts to hold back the growing pothole problem.

“[Former mayor Mike] McGinn launched a supposedly more thorough plan for dealing with potholes,” said Steve Ringman, reporting for the Times. “The new mayor all but scoffed at former Mayor Greg Nickels’ rapid, 48-hour response, saying quick fixes were fast but not durable enough. Crews intend to take more time to remove jagged edges and create a smoother surface to last 12 months, compared with Nickels’ three-month patches.”

Blogger “Math Mom” weighed in her response to the Times’ article, noting how she hears repairs apparently are or should be done. “Apparently, Shoreline [a suburb immediate adjacent to Seattle] fixes cracks in the road before the ice and thaws happen,” she notes. “Gosh–no place for the ice to form in the roads leads to fewer potholes? Who could ever have predicted that not waiting for potholes to form in the first place before maintaining the streets might be a good idea? Amazing!”

OK, perhaps Math Mom has the right idea. But in the mayor’s defense, there’s a lot more to running a city – police and fire departments, departments of revenue, education, cultural affairs, commerce, etc. – than just repairing potholes.

Almanac.com (the Old Farmer’s Almanac, online) is predicting that the coldest and snowiest weather for the Pacific Northwest will ease in March, and that April and May will be “cooler and drier than normal.”  Count the dryness as a plus – most pothole filling material (with some exceptions) cannot be used in standing puddles.

Because where it comes to judging elected officials, mayors in particular, it’s the potholes people notice the most. As they accumulate and grow with aging roadway systems most cities built in the 1950s and 1960s, potholes increasingly have become the measure of mayoral effectiveness. We sympathize with all city leaders who grapple with this challenge – and wish them well in the spring and summer of 2011, when the repair work will happen in earnest.