New England Potholes: How They Fix Them With Uncertain Funding

Posted by in Uncategorized

Massachusetts Gov. Duval Patrick in Mass is proposing a major funding increase to fix streets and bridges – including and especially the potholes – in the aftermath of the winter of 2010-2011.

Patrick is asking the state legislature to increase the pothole budget from $155 million to $210 million. Meanwhile, a citizens group joined with several state mayors to ask that the number be pushed up, closer to $300 million – a near doubling of the original road projects bill for the year. Braintree, Massachusetts Mayor Joe Sullivan told the Boston University Daily Free Press, “We think that we can double the $155 million to improve infrastructure and increase jobs. The need is greater, so the $300 million is not far-fetched.” A final determination on funding will be made at an April 1 vote in the Massachusetts legislature.

Which will be none too soon. Boston.com displays a map provided by citizen app SeeClickFix, tracking where individuals have reported potholes and other civic damage that needs repair. The Boston-area map is littered with pothole reports.

The problems don’t end at the Boston city limits.

Across the state, 48 crews of state employees and an additional 16 contracted work crews are focused solely on pothole repairs. Between December 13, 2010 and February 4, 2011, 122 tons of asphalt mix was used in their work.

Which is barely sufficient for keeping up. The Northeast winter was particularly brutal, with massive amounts of snow and, more recently, oscillations of freeze-thaw conditions all led to a jarring degree of pavement deterioration. “The roads are actually rippling, in undulations and cracks,” says Bryan Jean, a Stamford, Connecticut resident who frequently visits family in central Massachusetts. “We’re seeing a lot of potholes on the main east-west road, Route 1, in Stamford. I’ve never noticed that before.”

Scrounging for budget after an expensive winter

Potholes are a product of moisture, temperature cycles and extremes – places like Los Angeles can have as many potholes as Portland, Maine, Providence, Rhode Island or Boston. But traffic and special conditions exaggerate the effects.

For example, Deana Schuttig of Albany, who is a sales representative for The EZ Street Company, an asphalt enterprise, explains that many of the roads she drives throughout New England have heavy tree overhang. The combination of shade and wind protection, as well as water dripping from the tree limbs, leads to water lingering longer on the road surface. As that water seeps into and under the pavement, the under-pavement begins to erode. Before long, a gap develops and the first heavy vehicle to pass over that gap can lead to a pothole.

“It’s getting a lot of attention from the ‘Pothole Patrol’ on television,” says Schuttig, referring to Chicopee, Massachusetts television station WWLP-TV 22News tracking of pothole stories in the region. The City of Boston calls its own dedicated street repairs crew the same name, Pothole Patrol.

50 freeze-thaw cycles per year

Because Schuttig calls on municipalities and other buyers of road repair materials, she hears about the potholes of New England from the people on the frontlines, the departments of transportation, city streets managers and managers of private facilities. “They are scrounging for manpower and budget to fix the roads,” she said. “Because many of them were paying overtime for snow plowing and spent more on road salt, their budgets now are in a freeze. At the same time, they’re hearing from their superiors and motorists about how bad the roads are.”

If the Massachusetts legislature approves the budget, there will be much rejoicing in Fall River, Newton, Brookline, Framingham, Wooster, Wrentham and Brockton. And that’s just for starters.

The Herald-News reported in February that much needed road work is scheduled by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation on Route 79 in Fall River, where the stretch of highway is notorious for providing a bumpy ride. The brutal winter of 2010-2011 is largely to blame.

But more than just cold weather and moisture, it is the temperature cycles. The Wooster (Massachusetts) Daily Record interviewed an expert, John O’Doherty, a technical expert with the National Center for Pavement Preservation, based in Michigan. He explained how even in normal winter and spring conditions, the New England area is subject to exceptional pothole development. “We live in the area of North American continent that has 50 freeze-thaw cycles a year,” he said. “There’s a strip from the Canadian border to Northern Kentucky that is characterized by weather fluctuations in temperature 50 times a year.”

In Newton, west of Boston, municipal crews were using about 30 tons of hot asphalt mix every day in pothole repairs, work that began back in February. It takes eight work crews to cover that much territory. “This is going to be a heavy pothole season,” said the city’s public works commissioner. “More potholes than we normally would see at this time of year. I think we’re very good at getting the major ones where the traffic is, but there’s still a lot of them that pop up.”

Back in Boston, one wonders if the city has leftover funds since finishing up the Big Dig. Beantown was able to allocate $151,300 for a “Zamboni for pavement,” otherwise known as the Pro-Patch Pothole Patcher, or as “Pot-zilla” for short. It addresses a problem faced throughout the zone where freeze-thaw cycles are most common: by applying hot asphalt in an efficient manner during the coldest parts of winter.

“It’s going to do the job faster and more efficiently,” Joanne Massaro, Boston’s Special Projects Director, told Boston.com. “So when they can come in, they can jackhammer and make a neat hole, fill it quickly. And it’s a permanent patch.”

In Wrentham, Massachusetts, they work around winter temperatures by using a high-performance cold mix. The town’s Department of Public Works superintendent says this solves the problem of being too far away from hot mix asphalt plants. The department claims the cold mix – made of a low molecular weight liquid polymer modifier – to be a permanent solution, quite unlike the lower-quality mix that often last only a few weeks in most applications.

One enterprising/frustrated Brockton, Massachusetts resident gave her least favorite pothole a Facebook page, as reported previously on Pothole.info.

Just a bit south, on Staten Island in New York, the borough has an estimated 45,000 potholes since the series of snowstorms that hit New York City in late 2010 and early 2011. There, citizen Jack Graziano has managed to air his complaints before the city’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg. He described road conditions as, “devastation, it’s demolished, it looks like the whole street is not even there no more.”

Motorists take control of the pothole situation

But Graziano may not have appreciated the answer he received from Bloomberg. The Gothamist.com reports that the mayor remarked, “If we don’t get some help in terms of relieving some of the mandates we have, the cuts from the state are going to be very difficult to deal with. Do we have enough resources? No. And the future is – unless we can get some help from Albany in reducing some of the mandates – the future is going to mean even more sacrifice and fewer abilities to respond quickly. That’s just the real world.”

Graziano no doubt experiences more than just a jarring ride. Most motorists complain about the monetary costs of their pockmarked, potholed travels. These costs are from damaged cars, tires and wheels, some reaching past the $1000 level.

And who would know that better than an auto shop proprietor? The manager of a Framingham, Massachusetts car service station, Ron’s Tire & Service Inc., says he typically sees more customers after a rain. He theorizes this is because rain-filled potholes are hard to detect.

Ryan McMullen, of Sullivan Tire & Auto Service in Newton, Massachusetts says he averages two customers per day complaining of pothole-caused car damage. But he offers constructive advice to drivers (possibly at a cost to his own business). He says to drive carefully.

“I think if you give yourself enough distance between yourself and the car in front of you, you’re going to be able to see what’s in the road,’’ says McMullen.

In other words, don’t tailgate. Which is good advice in any season, on smooth roads as well as rough.