Many Cities Struggling to Fill Potholes

By: AP
By: AP

East St. Louis, Ill., already desperately poor, didn't need this.

All winter long, snow- and ice-covered streets repeatedly froze and thawed, opening up scores of cracks in the pavement. The cracks turned into potholes, and the potholes turned into gaping craters.

Now this city and others across the nation are left with more potholes than they have seen in decades. Add the fact that asphalt is an expensive oil-based product, and the cost of those repairs is higher than ever.

"It's been devastating," said City Manager Robert Betts. "We just don't know what to do."

Some road departments are even delaying major construction projects because they need to spend money instead on patching potholes.

In East St. Louis, the city is filling only the deepest and largest holes — leaving behind some that are large enough to break axles and puncture the tires of vehicles, including city ambulances, police cars and fire trucks.

This past winter was especially brutal in many parts of the country, bringing blizzards and heavy snow. The Midwest was particularly hard-hit, and one result is more damaged pavement.

Chicago already has filled 120,000 potholes since Dec. 1, about 50,000 more than during the same period last year. Motorists are finding their travels take longer and are more treacherous.

Chicago officials concluded that the north end of Lake Shore Drive, one of the most scenic routes in the city, was so pockmarked that the speed limit, which is normally raised from 40 mph to 45 mph in the summer, will stay at the slower speed limit.

"We haven't done that in at least 15 years," said Brian Steele, transportation department spokesman.

Indianapolis is using more asphalt than in previous years and paying $52 a ton instead of last year's $40 price. The city is also searching for more money so crews don't have to cut back on roadwork.

"It's going to create potholes down the line because paying $12 more a ton means we can pave less miles, and therefore the roads aren't in as good of shape," said Kit Werbe, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Public Works.

Petroleum is a key ingredient in the asphalt that gets spread on roads and poured into potholes. Mixed with sand or gravel, the oil serves as the glue that holds the other materials together.

In Des Moines, Bill Stowe, the assistant city manager for public works and engineering, said prices for asphalt and gasoline are climbing at exactly the wrong time.

This winter, the city had to spend $800,000 more than the $3 million it had budgeted to clean up 58 inches of snow. Then there was $70,000 to fill the potholes — more than four times the amount spent in recent years.

And the same heavy equipment used to clear the snow and fill the potholes also uses gasoline every time it hits the road.

"It's a perfect storm, a snow-and-ice nightmare," Stowe said. "No question this is the worst it's been in probably 10 years."

Des Moines had to reduce by 20 percent the number of miles of road it planned to resurface.

"We had to ramp back significantly on long-term maintenance work," he said. "We're out there patching because we don't have the money to do the overlay."

It's the same story in Madison County, Iowa, where gas costs about $1 more than last year, causing officials to spend $90,000 to $100,000 more than they planned.

"We'll just keep doing it (repairing roads) until we run out of money," said Todd Hagan, the county engineer.

In Milwaukee, the number of pothole reports this winter nearly doubled, to 5,500. Seasonal crews had to be brought in as much as two months early to fill the potholes.

That cost the city an additional $440,000, and forced officials to postpone construction projects.

For now, road departments say a major concern is what will happen if next winter is as severe as this last one and oil prices continue to climb.

"We'd have to cut services of some kind, maybe take road crews off the road for a while," said Hagan, in Madison County.

That's already happening in East St. Louis. Because asphalt costs climbed about $5 a ton, to $51.20, the city could only afford 2,150 tons. It needed 3,000 tons.

"Some streets may not get patched at all," said Public Works Director Jesse Walker. "It's going to get rougher and rougher out there."


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