Boston Digs Out – To Find Potholes

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With an accumulation of almost eight feet of snow so far in the winter of 2014-2015, the City of Boston is still trying to figure out how to make streets and public transportation systems operable.

But the brutal, heavy-precipitation winter of 2015 in Massachusetts and much of the rest of New England will have an after-effect that may well last into the warmer, even summer months. Without question, there will be a blizzard of potholes.

The current discussion is about snow removal, as it should be. The Boston Department of Public works and its outside contractors are working around the clock to plow and, where possible, remove the snow from critical transportation routes. And while wintertime snowfall is hardly a new concern in the city, municipal leaders are looking to Montreal, Buffalo and other snowbelt cities for help and advice on handling the waves of accumulation that result from successive storms in January and February. Some other details of Boston’s situation in early 2015:

  • At least nine deaths have been attributed to weather conditions in Massachusetts, resulting from snowplow accidents, heart attacks while shoveling and in fires that couldn’t be extinguished.
  • At least 108 buildings have collapsed or been damaged by the weight of snow. Drones have been used in some municipalities, including Somerville, Massachusetts as a means to check snow accumulations on rooftops.
  • Existing employees and contractors are so overtaxed with trying to get public transportation back to working condition that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is paying capable workers $30/hour to shovel train tracks. The system may not be fully operational until late March.
  • Immense snow removal equipment is arriving in the greater Boston area from surrounding areas to supplement city and state capabilities. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency has contracted with the states of Maine, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont to receive14 backhoes, 87 dump trucks, 28 front end loaders and 33 skid-steer loaders to help with the task, all staged out of Bedford, Massachusetts.
  • Snow-melting machines from Logan International Airport are being employed, each of which can turn 135 tons of snow into water per hour. “Snow farms” are receiving truckloads of snow on lots near the city.
  • This winter will register on the record books for the Bay State. With 97.9 inches of snow recorded in Boston as of February 19, it is still about 10 inches short of the all time record set in 1995-1996. Heading toward March, it’s conceivable that more precipitation will fall to establish this as Boston’s all time snowiest winter.
  • The sheer concentration of snowfall in late January and February is what surprises most, after a fairly snowless December and early New Year. Washington Post environment and science writer Chris Mooney notes that, counter-intuitively, sea surface temperatures off the coast of New England are 21F warmer than normal in some locations. Warmer water means more moisture in the air; combined with cold arctic winds that turns into heavy snowfall. The Northeast has experienced a 71 percent rise in “very heavy participation” events between 1958 and 2012.

Preparing for the Big Melt

Television station NECN reported that Newton, a suburb located just seven miles from downtown Boston, is dealing with the same challenges of blocked streets, impassable sidewalks and one more thing: monster potholes.  City mayor Dave Turocy spoke about the difficulty of addressing potholes that, while growing in number and size due to precipitation and freeze-thaw expansion, cannot be adequately addressed until snow removal crews are relieved of that duty. That’s when they will have the time – and with luck, dry roads – to fill the potholes.

In the meantime, Boston, Newton and other municipalities are installing orange cones and hazard flags in the worst of the potholes as fair warning to drivers.

New England probably wins the prize for having the worst sustained winter weather conditions in an urban area in 2015. But snowier- and colder-than-normal conditions have persisted across the entire eastern half of the country, from the Dakotas south to Texas across the southeast on up the Atlantic coast through Maine and Canada. This creates a recipe for pothole formation: the double-whammy of how snowier weather stretches road maintenance budgets with more snow removal (worker overtime plus contracting with private plowing firms) and deicer use. With budgets spent early, the money designated to fix pavement later may already be spent by springtime. City and state legislatures then have to allocate more funds for repairs, which sometimes delays pothole filling – as consumer complaints mount.

For motorists, this means drive with caution, learn how to minimize damage to your vehicle in pothole conditions (tips can be found here: http://www.pothole.info/2011/10/driving-tips-to-avoid-potholes-and-rising-tire-prices/) – and maybe set aside a few hundred dollars or more for car repair bills.