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Potholes 2014: Brunt of the Polar Vortices in Northeast US

By April 22, 2014July 8th, 2014No Comments

Reports from cities, counties and state departments of transportation in the northeastern United States – all significantly affected by the harsh conditions of the winter of 2013-2014 – tell us at least two things. One, that potholes now seen after the departure of the last ice and snow in mid-April are abundant. Two, that the costs of fixing those potholes are enormous.

As detailed in the state-by-state report below, many road maintenance agencies are asking for twice as much money as in previous years. These are not problems limited to big cities, but found in smaller towns and rural areas as well – frost heave does not discriminate. And while the deep freezes brought on by the famed Polar Vortices in January and February caused enough damage on their own, some of the damage also came in the shoulder season, March and April, when fluctuations around the freezing point really added to the damage.

From hardened Yankees, here’s what was able to learn:

Connecticut – An automotive repair shop in East Haven provides this analysis of the pothole situation in this state: As of February, the number of cars they see with damages (flat tires, bent rims, sidewall damage to tires, front-end misalignments, etc.) average between five and eight per week, up from two in prior years. The public works director in nearby North Haven noted that both the hurricanes of the past two years combined with winter conditions can be cited for causing the above-average degree of potholes there.

Maine – An annual event sponsored by the Maine Better Transportation Association is called the “Worst Road in Maine Contest.” The first prize is $296 – equivalent to the amount that Mainers pay in extra car repairs and maintenance that can be attributed to potholes and other pavement defects. The president of the association points out that $296 does not take into account safety risks or lost time to travel, noting that accidents occur up to 75 percent more often on roads where the ride is roughest. The state compares poorly to national road quality assessment figures, including 91 percent of rural roads that are assessed as “poor,” compared to 67 of comparable roads across the U.S.

Massachusetts governor Duval Patrick has freed up $40 million for a one-time pothole repair program in 2014, three-quarters of which goes to communities and the remaining quarter to fix state roads. An editorial in the Lowell Sun noted that the already “poor state of our roads and highways, combined with alternative cycles of freezing and thawing common during winter, produces prime pothole conditions.  That was especially true this season, particularly on vulnerable, maintenance-deprived surfaces.”

Maryland – The state DOT set aside $10 million to allocate to counties for their pothole repair this year. Frederick County received $550,000 of that, about double what it generally allocates to road repairs in the spring. The county director of public works reported that crews were consumed with snow and ice removal on 47 days of the winter season, and that their plans to repair all potholes within four months will cost up to $900,000.

Massachusetts – The 2014 running of the Boston Marathon got more attention in the aftermath of bombings at the 2013 event. So it makes sense that the nearby city of Newton, with landmark points along the 26.2 mile run, has had a crew of 30 city employees fixing potholes along its five mile segment – at a cost estimated by the commissioner of public works to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In Boston, the city reported filling three times the number of potholes in the first quarter of the year than in previous years.

New Hampshire – Maybe because it’s the Granite State, there is a website run by Aggregate the Vote ( that decries the fact that the small New England state has 1,600 miles of roads that require “major work,” in addition to 500 bridges that have deficiencies, weight restrictions and poor structural conditions. In the more populated southern portion of the state, a road agent for the city of Newton reported in early April that they’ve used five tons of cold patch asphalt, compared to about three tons used in a typical year.

New Jersey – More money is being allocated in populous Morris County than ever before for road repairs in the wake of this past winter. The county’s Roads, Bridges and Shade Tree Division uses six crews to fill potholes on 300 miles of streets and highways. Fortunately, the 2014 capital budget contains a $775,900 increase over the previous year’s budget for road repaving, supplemented by $3.9 million from the state and $1.16 million from the federal government. $75,000 was spent to double the arsenal of “hot box” pothole repair units, which help create stronger and longer-lasting repairs than the standard “throw and go” methods used during brutal winter conditions before warmer weather allows better-quality repairs.

New York – In New York City, it may seem the condition of roads in Manhattan get all the attention. But in Queens, the Downtown Flushing Business Improvement district executive director noted in April what towns all across the USA can identify with: He said, “the conditions discourage people from coming downtown and it doesn’t look good.” Cited was an incident where traffic tie-ups were attributed to erratic driving to avoid potholes on the district’s main street. In another borough, the annual 40-mile “Tour de Staten Island” in mid April showed 1,000 bicyclists the diverse and beautiful terrain of the island, but several bikers reported flat tires and minor scrapes from falls due to potholes.

A few hundred miles north and west is Rochester, New York, where ambulances arriving at Strong Hospital have suffered damaged vehicles because of poor pavement. Further east in Lewisboro, the state senator asked his constituents to report potholes to their local municipalities in order to make use of $40 million in funding for repairs by way of the Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program (CHIPS). Buffalo, which lived up to its fame as a snow capital in the winter of 2014, has its own share of pothole woes. The Erie Country Public Works Commissioner says the number of potholes were two to three times as many as the previous year. He said it wasn’t just the amount of snow, but the duration. The suburban Town of Tonawanda took the extreme measure of milling one particularly bad boulevard during the winter, with plans to repave it in the spring.

Pennsylvania – A PennDOT spokesperson says this year’s pavement damage from winter “is as severe as we’ve had in this region at least in the past 20 to 30 years.” Philadelphia is projecting it will cost about $550,000 to repair 25,000 potholes this spring. But researchers at nearby Villanova University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering school say they are working on new and better road building materials and approaches to help prevent pavement problems in the future. Fibers and additives to asphalt should increase tensile strength, says a lead researcher at the school, as well as newer types of pothole repair vehicles.

Rhode Island – We’re surprised this is the first time this has happened. The Providence Journal ran an opinion piece by the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, who is proposing that tax revenues from the sale of pot be used to fix potholes. Actually, the state governor, Lincoln Chafee, had punned “pot for potholes” might be feasible given how Colorado (one of two states that have legalized recreational use of the drug) collected $2 million in marijuana taxes in the month of January 2014 alone. Given that RIDOT is liable to compensate drivers for damages up to $5,000 per incident for property damage claims, one imagines the proposal is being given some consideration.

Vermont – The Vermont Agency of Transportation has already used 3,230 tons of patch material at a cost of $1.69 million. But state officials predict that number will go higher. In a milder winter, 2012, $2.57 million was spent – but battling snow since October 2013 there have been “93 plowable events” (when three or more state districts need snow plows to clear streets). So beleaguered with reports on damage to cars and the threat to public safety, the city of Warren issued a pothole alert on its website that advises against swerving to avoid a hole. That’s because the front wheel and tire might then hit the pavement crevice on an oblique angle, leading to greater damage than if hit traveling at a perpendicular. Forewarned is forearmed.

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