Plagued by potholes: Temperature swings delay response to cratered roads in D.C.

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The snow may have melted, but travel troubles continue on D.C.-area roads and highways left scarred with car-crippling potholes. Making matters worse, the erratic winter weather that caused the problem is now obstructing efforts to fix it.

A week into spring and even the District’s ballyhooed street-repair blitz, “Potholepalooza” has twice been postponed because the cold just won’t go away.


PHOTOS: District potholes


“People are very frustrated by it, and I am too because I go through it as well,” D.C. Department of Transportation spokesman Reggie Sanders said.

Mr. Sanders noted that even before the start of the sixth annual Potholepalooza workers have been busily patching cratered city streets. About 16,000 holes were filled prior to the first day of spring on March 20.

But the start of the 30-day effort — during which road crews work to fill all reported potholes within 48 hours compared to the standard 72-hour response time — had to be delayed from March 20 and again from Tuesday because of fluctuating temperatures that have dropped from above 50 degrees to below freezing in a matter of hours.

Crews need temperatures to stay above 45 degrees consistently so the roads are thawed before conducting repairs. That can be frustrating to commuters who have to dodge the same stretches of pockmarked streets day after day until the weather warms.

“What we try to do is to educate the people about the process and the conditions we’re under, which is different than in years past,” Mr. Sanders said.

The biggest difference is that the District saw 30.3 inches of snow this winter compared to 3.1 inches last winter, according to the National Weather Service.

Maryland State Highway Administration spokesman Charlie Gischlar said the increase in the amount of potholes is directly related to the increase in precipitation.

“The pothole is formed by what we call, the ‘freeze-thaw cycle,’ ” he said.

As temperatures drop and rise, often between night and day, the roads contract and expand, creating small cracks. Water seeps into those cracks, accumulating into sizable pockets under the pavement. The growing mound of ice lifts the road a bit, and passing vehicles agitate the asphalt. Once the ice under the pavement melts, the section of road will easily collapse, creating a pothole.

Because potholes get bigger quickly, city officials rely on motorists to report them immediately, before they have a chance to grow and inflict more severe damage on vehicles.

Mr. Gischlar said road workers are constantly filling potholes on highways — sometimes hundreds per day. Usually they keep to a Monday-Friday schedule, but they have had to work on Saturdays to keep up with the demand, especially for the larger potholes.

“It’s just bad this year. There’s a lot,” he said.

With regard to the potholes, this is “one of the worst years we’ve seen since 2009,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA mid-Atlantic spokesman, referring to the historically severe winter that saw 56 inches of snow dumped on the D.C. area.

The required road repairs this year come on top of massive overspending by state and local governments on snow removal because of more than two dozen separate storms that required salting and plowing.

Stateline, the daily news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts, reported last week that Virginia would spend at least $100 million more than the $157 million it set aside for winter maintenance. Maryland’s expenses were expected to hit $130 million, nearly double its five-year average of $70 million. The states planned to use money previously designated for spring and summer maintenance to cover the added costs.

And, pothole-induced damage can be costly to car owners. Nationwide, Mr. Townsend said motorists will collectively pay $6.4 billion for pothole-related damage to vehicles this year.

Locally, D.C. drivers will share $311 million of that bill, or $833 per motorist, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Mr. Townsend said tire issues could result in bills ranging from $50-$500, depending on the tire and the extent of the damage.

“If you rip the tire, you have to replace the whole tire,” he said. “If you drive on it, you could do damage to the shocks or suspension system.”

Serious damage to the steering or suspension system could result in bills as steep as $2,500.

Mr. Townsend said the severity of the pothole problem can be measured two ways. One way is to count the potholes. Another way is to count the number of drivers who call for tire service assistance.

AAA can testify to the latter, as the group has recently seen an increase in those calls for help.

This year, the motor club received 2,651 requests for tire services in the District alone — a 19 percent increase over last year.

The good news is that the bout of below-freezing temperatures that marked the early spring is expected to move out of the area by Thursday, to be replaced by more seasonable weather.

Once that happens, crews can repair the damage — not a moment too soon for transportation officials.

“In this situation, we want to repave, and we can’t really do that in this kind of weather,” Mr. Sanders said. “Ideally we want to have a smooth roadway.”

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