North Carolina Pothole Season Follows Budget-Busting Winter

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The story of spring potholes in Raleigh, North Carolina in 2014 might be told in terms of road salt tonnage. Because what was used this winter beat the previous three years combined – by a multiple of eight.

As Chris McGee, transportation field services manager for the city, told the Raleigh News Observer in March 2014 that those numbers are 4,300 (in 2014) vs. 500 (2011-2013). Note, that’s 500 tons of road salt used over three winters compared to 4,300 tons in just the past six months. Yes, this winter in North Carolina (and much of the rest of the region) was that bad.

Which indirectly relates to potholes. Salt can damage many things – roadside vegetation, animal paws, rusting metal – but the real culprit in potholes is moisture, particularly during freeze-thaw fluctuations (above/below 32 degrees F), plus heavy traffic that rolls over water-compromised pavement. The more moisture that is there and freezing, the more that salt is used.

The asphalt industry in the state is well aware of what has been happening and is preparing for the repair work to come. Jeff McGee (no relation to Chris), of the S.T. Wooten Corporation of Wilson, North Carolina says that snow and ice this year were greater than anything he’s seen in at least ten years. The family-owned contractor provides construction services and materials, including hot and cold asphalt mixes.

“In addition to the snow, we had lots of rain when the temperatures were in the 30s and 40s, plus lots of fluctuations,” he says. Complicating road and street remediation was the fact there were few breaks in the harsh winter conditions. “Road repair couldn’t be done on a proactive basis because January and February were too wet and cold. That will double the workload in the spring.”

The city of Durham takes an all-in approach to pothole repair in the spring with “Pothole Wednesdays,” reports McGee the contractor. The city takes work crews off other projects and dedicates them to potholes – on hump day, we should note – because it is a more efficient process. “Most cities have to fix potholes before injury and damages result,” he says.

Jeff McGee also anticipates that much asphalt repair will also be necessary in the private sector, including in parking lots that serve shopping centers. “The same conditions affecting streets are there as well, impacting supermarkets and big box retailers,” he predicts.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation told the News Observer that snow removal and salt use have already created a budget shortfall for 2014. Against a budget of $40 million for the state, $62 million was spent as of mid-March. Administrators for NCDOT say they will make up for the overage by curtailing other work, such as mowing grass, litter removal and sign replacement.