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Milder Winter, Fewer Potholes?

By January 15, 2012 July 8th, 2014 No Comments

The reworking of the U.S. weather maps in early January reflects what most of the northern tier of the United States has quietly been happy about: This winter hasn’t turned out to be nearly as bad as expected. That might result in smoother driving next summer, from less damage to streets and highways, and more money to fix potholes because snow and ice removal have not been necessary.

There are, however, many “ifs” to this story.

The winter predictions as of October 2011 had been almost dire: Colder and snowier than normal weather in the upper Midwest (Nebraska through western New York) had been forecasted by AccuWeather.com. But as of the second week in January, the following temperatures were posted for cities in that region: Chicago (46 degrees F), Buffalo (40 degrees), St. Louis (53 degrees), Omaha (49 degrees), Minneapolis (49 degrees), Milwaukee (47 degrees), Kansas City (52 degrees), Amarillo, Texas (48 degrees), Nashville (49 degrees), Detroit (45 degrees), Indianapolis (49 degrees) and Des Moines (50 degrees). In each of these cities, there was not a snowflake in sight. On most days, sunshine prevailed as well.

In case you do not live in this region, you should know this much: such temperatures in January are considered “balmy.”

If anything, the concern is about dry weather, where a lack of snowmelt in the spring might lead to drought-like conditions next summer. Time magazine reports that “at the end of 2011, less than 20 percent of the continental U.S. was covered with snow, compared to more than 50% at the end of 2010.”

This turnabout in weather patterns can have a significant impact on pavement. In a typical winter, the onslaught of snow, ice, freeze-thaw cycles, road salt and snow plows leads to the second portion of each calendar year: Pothole Season. It’s an annual race against physics and forecasts for northern-tier cities’ departments of street maintenance: fill potholes as they open up during winter with a temporary, lower-quality cold patch material, then return in the spring and summer with a more permanent roadway fix of higher quality hot asphalt (which doesn’t work in freezing and wet conditions).

Winter conditions aren’t the only thing that can cause pavement to deteriorate. In fact, potholes are often just as common in the tropics and semi-tropics, places where the thermometer almost never dips below 32 degrees F (0 degrees C).

Road quality in Hawaii and California ranks with the bottom five states (along with New York, Alaska and Rhode Island) of a national survey conducted by Reason.org. The roads with the best conditions (judged on the basis of state highway systems) are Nebraska, New Mexico, Kansas, Montana and North Dakota. These numbers strongly suggest that pavement deterioration (i.e., potholes) are a function of something other than just winter weather.

In fact, a combination of moisture, traffic and time can deteriorate a road pretty effectively. It’s just that icy temperatures – especially when they oscillate above and below 32 degrees F (0 degrees C), allow water and ice to pry open roadway cracks – plus salt and snow plows, are what add to the damage. The CBC News in Canada reported from Regina, Saskatchewan in early January that the normally ice-bound city is experiencing just such oscillations in this mild winter, such that they expect a greater number of potholes than normal.

“During the day the ice melted, and the melted water was going through the cracks, and at night it freezes and pushes back,” Nigora Yulyakshieva, the City of Regina’s manager of roadways preservation, told the news service. She explained that roads in Saskatchewan are built to withstand colder weather, so they are not able to handle the freeze-thaw cycle as well as cities with warmer climates.

“We don’t notice it yet, but what will happen in the spring is we will see more potholes and bumps if temperatures stay as they are,” she said.

As Yulyakshieva suggests, municipalities further south that are experiencing a mild winter are likely to see fewer potholes if these weather conditions persist (a big if that is – AccuWeather says that temperatures and precipitation could well return to normal conditions in February and March).

The creeping dilemma of deteriorating roads, streets and highways

The unfortunate news is that the roads were in bad shape to begin with. A mild winter does not make the old potholes go away.

The single largest contributor to the pothole problem in the U.S. and many other regions of the developed world is simply time: roads built in the three decades following World War II are now more than 50 years old. Local, state and federal highway maintenance departments have learned a lot over these years, including how to manage small pavement cracks before they grow into crevasses and potholes.

But the system is so large that routine maintenance has been judged to be expensive. Some of that has been penny-wise-dollar-foolish thinking, as deferred maintenance can increase the cost by as much as a factor of seven (to illustrate, think about cracks and cuts in pavement that instead are left unsealed, then add water to those pavement breaks just before the temperatures dip below freezing, winter upon winter, for several years – a process some refer to as “frost wedging”).

The truth is we’re not keeping up with those cracks. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) states that spending nationally on road and highway maintenance should be around $166 billion per year, but in recent years – even with the infusion of 2009 and 2010 federal economic stimulus funds – that number peaked around $114 billion. Outside of stimulus dollars, only about $78 billion is spent in other years. Adding to the problem, federal gas taxes (18.4 cents per gallon) that make up the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) are declining as vehicle fuel efficiency increases. Just at the time when the money is needed, more than ever, repair revenues are down.

Hold the salt, pass the asphalt?

Factoring into streets and highway maintenance is how money is not being spent this mild winter. The Associated Press reported in late December, “the mild weather has been a boon for cash-strapped cities that have hardly touched their salt supplies or snow-removal budgets.”  Bloomington, Illinois public works director Jim Karch says he’s spent only $8,000 of a $325,000 winter labor budget thus far. In Normal, Illinois, the current expenditures of $2,100 compare to $140,000 spent by the same date one year earlier. The snowfall in Chicago (1.7 inches by the end of December, compared to the average 8.7 inches) means that only $500,000 in snow removal was spent in December as compared to $6 million in December of 2010 – with $19,500,000 remaining in the winter budget.

So, we should count our blessings that a milder winter might mean fewer new potholes in 2012 (unless, as in Regina, the temperature fluctuations around the freezing point meet up with the presence of moisture)? Or might it be smarter to just shut up about it lest we jinx our good fortune?

Perhaps by March or April, we’ll hear that the dollars saved on snow removal and salt is being channeled to street repairs. Until then, our lips are zipped and our fingers crossed.