Potholes, April 2014: Polar Vortex Damage in the American Heartland

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To the surprise of no one, the brutal winter conditions in certain parts of the United States have led to a pothole epidemic in Spring 2014.

The successive waves of sub-zero temperatures – including the Polar Vortices of January and February – have certainly done a number on the nation’s highways, roads, streets and alleys. But to those familiar with pothole generation, where freeze-thaw cycles accelerate pavement deterioration, the troubles didn’t end by March. The fluctuations above and below 32 degrees F (O degrees C) this spring have been perhaps as damaging as those bone chilling days three months ago.

Pothole.info does its best to compile reports from the media and departments of transportation (DOTs) where the damage is greatest and efforts to prevent and repair the roads are the most successful. But let us be honest: this is an ever-evolving situation. Potholes pop up overnight – literally. And until satellite imagery is wed with some type of analytical software to provide real time census of chuckholes, we must count the damage by other means.

This article provides a rundown of the areas most affected by the brutal winter and slow-to-warm spring in the upper Midwest of the U.S. In these areas, departments of transportation battle valiantly against physics, nature, and what we presume to be disgruntled motorists (all for good reason, including expensive auto repair incidents). From a review of media reports, state-by-state, this is what we know thus far:

Illinois – Where to begin with “Chiberia,” where seven million people woke up to temperatures below freezing on 23 days this winter? As of April 3, there were 1,874 pothole damage claims filed with the city by motorists, with repair costs running between $400 and $500 per claim (the total over the preceding three years was 2,400 claims, or about 800 per year). An auto repair shop proprietor said those claims can cost the city as much as $2,000, “where pretty much every component in the suspension was damaged,” according to a local television story.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he’s seeking funding to repave 333 miles of roads in lieu of patching, at an estimated cost of $200 million. The city’s DOT says that already 240,000 potholes were filled in the first two months of the year.

Downstate in East Peoria, the Innovations Conference on Asphalt and Transportation, organized by the Bradley University civil engineering department, met for two days and retitled the event the “Pothole Conference.” The state is already $47 million over budget for snowplowing and salt use for the winter.

Indiana – A transportation consultant based in Indianapolis, Dennis Faulkenberg, told the weekly web publisher Nuvo.com that the state’s allocation of an additional $100 million in the 2013 legislative session will be necessary to fix the extra potholes in 2014. He notes that the winter weather conditions are exacerbated by what has come as temperatures climbed. “Add the spring warm up and the rains which allow moisture to get into the cracks formed – it is a tough problem.” The article pointed out that another complicating factor is that most asphalt plants used for road paving can’t operate until air temperatures reach 40 to 50 degrees.

Iowa – The state recorded its ninth coldest winter in 141 years, with Mississippi river town Dubuque registering an average of 10 degrees F in February. Ottumwa public works officials cited weather as the primary reason for their potholes, but noted too that regular snow plowing and truck traffic play an abusive role relative to rough pavement as well. The state’s IDOT district engineer says the problem is widespread, equally distributed over the roads and bridges in the 20 counties he oversees.

Michigan – While Midland, Michigan’s representative in the U.S. Congress, Dave Camp, heads the House Ways and Means Committee in searching for ways to add adequate revenues to the Highway Trust Fund – a critical part of how roads are maintained – plenty of pothole problems have plagued the entire state this spring. The city of Gaylord experienced -29 degrees F (-34 degrees C) on February 28, while a week later Flint reached an all-time low of -16 degrees F (-27 degrees C). The village of Newberry, in the Upper Peninsula, hit -41 degrees F (which is also -41 degrees C) also on February 28.

The bill for all this might come to $2 billion, say leaders from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. As they petition the state government for help to fix the deteriorating roads in and around Detroit (which had more snowfall than in 130 years), as well as the rest of the state, the Sterling Heights city council allocated $426,230 for a variety of pothole repair technologies. This includes a spray patching machine, a pavement-milling machine, an infrared asphalt machine, an asphalt recycler and an asphalt roller. The state used 927 tons of cold patch asphalt in 2014, almost 50 percent more than the previous record of 640 tons used in the winter of 2010-2011. Given that frost reached as deep as five feet in some parts of the state, none of this is surprising.

Minnesota – Brainerd and Duluth experienced their third and second coldest winters on record, respectively. But Minnesotans aren’t exactly the kind of people to find winter a surprise, much less something to complain about. A humor writer for the Twin Cities Daily Planet, a bicyclist, wrote an affectionate piece in April on his own encounter with a pothole: “What are potholes? They are nothing. They are the absence of a thing, a gap in the street. Like donut holes, they are an emptiness. An absent presence until you hit one, then a present absence.” The city of Minneapolis allocated an additional $1 million to pothole repair, although the Star Tribune newspaper is critical of the technology the Public Works department uses to track potholes and repair: Currently, a PDF is published twice yearly detailing the location of potholes, while a real-time, interactive GPS-equipped system probably would harness citizen-sourced information more efficiently, says the newspaper.

Missouri – There was no trouble in the Show Me State for anyone to see the pothole on I-29 near Amazonia in late February. Measuring 3 feet by 11 feet and 5 inches deep, four cars in succession hit it on a Saturday night and all experienced flat tires. MoDOT told a local television station that it was the largest they had ever encountered. In Kansas City, Missouri city crews report fixing 4,200 potholes between October and January, while St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic was working on repairs already in January with 15 dedicated crews. Five motorcyclists were killed in separate traffic incidents in March, which some riders feel were due to bad pavement.

North Dakota – The capital city, Bismarck, may have only 340 miles of streets, but the winter of 2014 still required a full 72,000 pounds of patch material as of March 20. But in a state where drilling for natural gas leads to a great deal of truck traffic, the problems go beyond simply cold temperatures and precipitation. The Bakken News reports that law enforcement was toeing a hard line regarding limitations on vehicle weight on many secondary roads. One trucking company was fined $8,000 for violating signage that read “No truck traffic, restricted roads, a ton limit per axle.” This is due to the vulnerability of roads in the springtime as pavement and sub-pavement heave, ready to collapse under the weight of vehicles.

Ohio – The pileup of 50 cars in March speaks to the sometimes deadly consequences (three fatalities) of winter. By April, Columbus was reporting that 38,500 potholes had been patched over a three-week period in an intense effort; however, 43,000 potholes had been filled already since the beginning of the year. The city employs Twitter and Facebook, as well as the MyColumbus mobile app, in sourcing reports on specific potholes. In Cleveland, three “pothole killer” trucks were acquired this year and deployed by March, after outsourcing the work the work to a private firm. The projected repair time using these resources is two months.

South Dakota – In Sioux Falls, they’re discussing less the severity of the winter than the fluctuating temperatures. A body shop owner told the local television news station, KDLT-News, “I think this year could actually be worse than other years because we’ve had the freezing and the thawing…that kind of causes things to heave around.” The AAA South Dakota advises all Dakotans to drive carefully on potholed roads, avoiding swerving, slow down, roll through (rather than brake) potholes and inflate tires properly.

Wisconsin – Milwaukee devised programming by mid-April to address the pothole problems there, which was widely reported as commendable given conditions throughout the city in winter’s aftermath. At least 25 individuals who were deemed difficult to employ, many with ex-offender status, were given full-time jobs with the city and job training, beginning with pothole repair. The Rheinlander Star Journal reports that in addition to snow removal and pothole repair, the city had to contend with 500 incidents of water main freezes – another indication of the severity of the weather this winter. The state governor granted a 4 percent increase in funding to Wisconsin cities to help combat the problem.