Infrastructure

2014 Shaping Up as an Epically Bad Year for Potholes

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Getty Images / Flickr RM

Snow. Freeze. Thaw. Repeat. This has largely been the weather pattern over the past few weeks. And this is the pattern that’s a perfect storm for producing a “bumper crop of potholes,” experts say.

The weather forecast for much of the East Coast right now may bring about the feeling of déjà vu. A large storm is heading east from the Midwest, bringing with it blizzard conditions and freezing temperatures. It’s not supposed to be quite as bad as the arctic-blast “polar vortex” of early January, but many of the results will be the same, including dangerous driving conditions, thousands of canceled airline flights, and, in the very near future, lots and lots of potholes.

Shortly after the polar vortex wreaked havoc on most of the country, drivers have been forced to zigzag down roads to avoid the many freshly created potholes dotting the blacktop. The Indianapolis area was “plagued by potholes” in mid-January, reported the Indianapolis Star. “We’re seeing them everywhere,” an area DPW spokesperson said. “They’re not concentrated in any one area.”

MLive.com, a news site covering Michigan, has been collecting reader-generated pothole images for an online photo gallery. Similarly, Newsday has a pothole map of Long Island based on the reports of readers. AAA spokesman Robert Sinclair Jr. told Newsday that the weather pattern of precipitation followed combined with a freeze-thaw cycle is “a perfect recipe for a bumper pothole season.” Potholes are “breaking out all over, the sheer volume and all in different sizes, shapes, and depths has been quite astounding as a result of this insane weather.”

(MORE: Winter Storm Bears Down on the East Coast)

The wild temperature swings much of the country has been “enjoying” play a big role in the formation of potholes. Water fills cracks in the roads, and when it freezes it makes those cracks bigger and bigger, eventually turning blacktop into rubble and creating tire-destroying potholes. “This weather has been phenomenal in a bad way,” White Plains DPW Commissioner Bud Nicoletti said to the Rye Daily Voice of Westchester County, N.Y. “To have big swings from 0 to 40 or 50 in one day is a perfect set up for a pothole.”

How bad are the potholes coming as a result of this winter’s weather? In one instance, they’ve been bad enough to help bring about a road rage incident, complete with gun fire. According to a Chicago CBS station, potholes played a role in a road rage incident that took place over the weekend in Gary, Indiana. Apparently, a woman was driving slowly to avoid hitting potholes on a local road. When a car began following too closely behind her, she hit the brakes. Soon thereafter, the car behind her sped off alongside her and someone in the car fired four to five shots in her direction. The car was hit with bullets, but the driver was not injured.

The far more likely negative consequence of potholes is that they’re bound to cost drivers (and taxpayers) money. Local and state governments have been spending millions to get crews out on the roads filling potholes before they get worse. Auto repair shops around the nation have been swamped with business, what with potholes causing damage to car tires and shocks. “We’ve done four times the normal business repairing tires today,” one Firestone shop manager told the Indianapolis Star.

(MORE: Why Supermarkets Are Loving the Polar Vortex)

Last October, a national transportation research group known as TRIP released a report estimating that 27% of major urban roads are in rough condition, collectively costing American drivers $80 billion annually. On average, each driver loses $277 per year due to vehicle repairs, tire wear, depreciation, and such as a result of operating on roads where potholes and shoddy pavement are the norm.

The numbers are based on 2012 data, and TRIP says that it won’t have figures related to the current winter for at least a year. “But,” Carolyn Bonifas Kelly, associate director of research and communication for TRIP, said via e-mail, “potholes can be a product of the freeze/thaw cycle, and given the weather extremes this year, it’s safe to say anecdotally that we could see a bumper crop of potholes.”

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