Precipitation and traffic cause most asphalt deterioration. But three things – the month, local weather and road repair budgets – predict when potholes form.
The winter of 2016-2017 is doing what winters do: Some areas (including the Northeast) are getting a fair degree of precipitation and freezing temperatures. A few spates of near-zero temperatures have hit the Upper Midwest and Great Plains states, sometimes dipping into the South East and Texas. Ice Storm Jupiter is making its way across the Upper Midwest as of this writing.
What is typical too is that potholes are forming. But it’s not happening evenly across the country as the factors that create potholes are unevenly distributed. How does the average motorist know what to expect and when? There are three ways to predict potholes in your area as winter wears on to spring:
Check the calendar: If it’s approaching springtime where you live, that tends to be pothole season. The aftermath of winter leaves potholes in its wake.
Check your preferred weather app: Check to see if temperatures dance above and below freezing. These are the ideal conditions for freeze-thaw temperatures.
Check your local municipality’s road maintenance budgets: This is a little trickier. Basically, it follows the rule that “a pound of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Now, let’s drill down into the details. But before we go there, keep in mind that potholes are a function of temperature fluctuations, traffic, time (i.e., the law of entropy) and the failure to fix small cracks and crevasses before they get bigger.
So as for seasons – the calendar – it’s is a pretty simple matter of snow, ice and their melted form (water) getting worked into small cracks and crevasses during the winter months. Road salt changes the equation in that it lowers the temperature at which water freezes, which isn’t necessarily good for preventing potholes; it depends on how much those temperatures fluctuate, how much moisture is there to begin with, and if the cracks were sealed in the fall or if small potholes were properly repaired throughout the year.
Weather apps are beneficial, particularly if yours allows a quick view of the temperature ranges over the next week or ten days. Check the highs and the lows – if they go above and below 32 degrees (F), you’re definitely in pothole-forming season. After the water melts into the cracks and subsurface of the pavement, it then expands when it freezes, a process that repeats itself over and over again as those temps go up and down.
For a national look at those ranges, visit The Weather Channel’s 24-hour Temperature Change Map.
Local road maintenance budgets might be a little more elusive, but not impossible to find. The reason to check is simple: Budgetary battles drive elected officials to look for places to save money. Things like maintenance schedules are easier to cut than things that have vocal constituencies. If a library might be closed the surrounding neighborhood might rally to keep it open. If an employee pension fund might get scaled back, there certainly would be those who are opposed to that. But potholes don’t speak for themselves. Yes, motorists can rise up and demand better streets but it’s almost always after the fact, after those potholes have already turned smooth pavement into a battle zone.
The most vigilant and forward-looking citizens will be thinking about next year’s potholes when this year’s budget is being discussed. To get started, go to your city’s or county’s website and look for a published budget, either adopted or as proposed. Search within for words such as “asphalt,” “streets” and “maintenance.” Some may lump it under “infrastructure.” If that fails, call your representative councilperson to learn as much as you can: ask if preventive maintenance is a budgetary priority.
Keep in mind that taxes and death aren’t the only things that can be predicted in life. So too can we be sure that potholes loom in our future. The difference is how many and how soon.