- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2006

The impending frigid temperatures and the melting of last weekend’s snow likely will jump-start the region’s pothole season, which has been stalled this year by a mild winter, state transportation officials said.

Charles Gischlar, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA), said rapidly melting snow combined with below-freezing temperatures at night is a bad sign for the roads and the vehicles that use them.

The National Weather Service is predicting that a cold front will move through the area early today, bringing with it rain and below-freezing temperatures. A 30 percent chance of snow has been forecast for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

“We haven’t gotten a lot of snow before [last weekend], but we have gotten rain, which has caused smaller cracks in older roads,” Mr. Gischlar said. “With the rainstorms, it just runs off and dries up pretty quickly. Snow just sits in one place, and when the warm temperatures melt the snow, it gets into the cracks in the pavement.”

The result is an outbreak of car-crippling craters known as potholes.

Potholes form after rain or melted snow seeps into roads and then freezes. The ice expands and splits the pavement, and the cracks get larger as vehicles drive over them, eventually creating a pothole.

State highway crews maintain more than 16,000 miles of roadways, Mr. Gischlar said. Most roads are in good condition, and damage to older roads is mainly from wear and tear, not the weather, he said.

“We’ve taken a proactive approach, filling the holes and, with some of the older roads, repaving them,” Mr. Gischlar said. “And there’s still a 48-hour turnaround for locations reported to us.”

It hasn’t been warm enough this winter to make permanent repairs, he said. SHA will use temporary asphalt until temperatures remain above 50 degrees, enabling road crews to use a more permanent mixture.

Officials in Maryland and Virginia give their crews 48 hours to fix a pothole after one is reported, though they try for a turnaround time of 24 hours. The District has a turnaround time of 72 hours.

Ryan Hall, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said that without the continuous freeze-thaw cycles of recent years, road crews have turned their attention elsewhere.

“The weather this winter has been so mild that [maintenance crews] have focused on other things, such as guardrail repair,” he said. “But we still have a few more weeks of winter to go.”

Pothole season usually begins in early spring, but the harsh weather of recent winters had the craters forming in December and January.

Mr. Hall said the few minor snowstorms near Thanksgiving had officials on alert that pothole season could begin early, but their concerns were allayed as temperatures remained relatively warm.

“With those little mini-storms, we thought it would be a hard-hitting winter,” he said. “But we’ve been lucky so far.”

In 2004, major snowstorms caused so many potholes in Virginia that Gov. Mark Warner declared a statewide “pothole blitz,” during which crews filled 95,000 potholes on 57,000 miles of road over a two-week period.

This winter has been different.

No measurable snow fell last month at Washington Dulles International or at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

It was also warmer.

The normal average temperature at Dulles for January is 32 degrees. Last month, the average temperature there reached a record high of 42 degrees, the National Weather Service reported.

The normal average monthly temperature at Reagan for January is 34.9 degrees. Last month, the average temperature there was 43 degrees, the National Weather Service reported.

In December, some snow fell but temperatures remained unseasonably warm.

Last weekend’s storm dumped up to 2 feet of snow in some areas, but warm temperatures returned and melted most of it.

Bill Rice, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT), said the warm weather and preventive maintenance measures have kept roads in decent shape. “It’s been a pretty mild winter,” he said. “And we’ve done a lot of repaving over the past few years.”

The District has received about 1,100 reports of potholes this fiscal year, compared with 5,000 in fiscal 2005, 5,400 in fiscal 2004 and 9,000 in fiscal 2003, Mr. Rice said.

The city has repaved thousands of blocks of streets in recent years. Pothole patches usually last five to 10 years.

In 2003, DDOT began using four Pro-Patch pothole-filling trucks, which cost about $100,000 each.

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