- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

Motorists encountering the hundreds of damaging potholes in the region can turn to government and highway officials for compensation — but a claim can take several months before it is accepted, if at all.

“The claim would be investigated to determine the state’s liability, which takes a couple of months,” said Joan Morris, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. “We’ll take [pertinent] information, like when and where you hit the pothole and how much damage was done. The first step would be contacting VDOT.”

Repair costs would be paid by the motorist, who will be reimbursed if the claim is accepted, Miss Morris said. The validity of the claim is based upon whether VDOT is proven negligible by not repairing the pothole in a timely manner.

Although VDOT officials did not have statistics on how many claims are filed and accepted, auto shops say most drivers don’t bother to file claims because of the slim chance of it being approved.

“It’s very difficult to get a claim [authorized],” said AndrezMartinez, the manager of JustTires in Alexandria. “Most customers are reluctant to make a claim because they’ve dealt with the state before. The pothole is usually covered up by the time you get out there to take a picture of it, or highway officials say, ‘We can’t control the weather.’”

Maryland drivers filing claims face similar delays, officials say. The number of claims so far this winter has over whelmed the state Treasurer’s Office, which handles the paperwork.

“A claim may take up to three weeks to be [processed],” said Sharon Barry, a claims manager for the office. “It usually takes less time than that, but there have been lots of claims made this winter, and our staff is limited.”

Miss Barry said while the office does not know exactly how many claims have been made, the number is substantially more this year than in the past.

“But generally, very few claims are paid out because the State Highway Administration repairs the potholes as soon as possible after they are reported,” she said.

The District, Maryland and Virginia each give their crews 72 hours to fix a pothole after it’s reported, though they try for a turnaround time of 24 hours.

David Buck, a spokesman for Maryland’s State Highway Administration, said it has to be proven that the agency knew about the pothole and didn’t do anything about it.

“Once you fill out a claim form with the date and time of when [the damage occurred] with the Treasurer’s Office, it’s compared to the date when we were first informed of the pothole. Negligence on our part has to be shown for [compensation].”

Mr. Buck said the worst of the pothole season, which lasts through spring, has yet to arrive.

Potholes usually begin forming in late winter or early spring, but because of the snowfall and record moisture the area received last year, holes were appearing as early as December.

MSHA officials said up to 250 crew members fill several hundred potholes statewide each day.

The D.C. Office of Corporation Counsel, which handles complaints of vehicle damage from potholes, has received 19 claims since Oct. 1, the start of fiscal 2004, compared with 40 for all of fiscal 2003, according to Peter Lavallee, a department spokesman.

Officials for the D.C. Departments of Public Works and Transportation, which handles pothole repair, said they received several hundred pothole reports Feb. 9. Crews have been repairing those holes and others they find.

D.C. officials said they received about 8,000 reports of potholes in 2002 and about 7,500 last year.

Meanwhile, VDOT workers are filling about 200 potholes each day, said spokesman Ryan Hall. More than 20 crews are filling holes in Northern Virginia.

The abundance of potholes has been good for area tire-repair shops, however.

“Business has picked up,” said Jimmy Frost, manager of Mr. Tire in Fort Washington. “Most people come in with bent rims, and we either bang them back into shape or replace them. In one significantly bad case, a guy came in with two blown tires and a bent tie-rod end. [This season] is the worst I’ve seen in a while.”

“The rims business is definitely up,” agreed Mr. Martinez. He added that even if a pothole does not blow out a tire or bend a wheel, other costly damage can occur.

“If a pothole can destroy a steel alloy wheel, it can definitely knock out a car’s alignment,” he said.

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