Pothole season comes every year, when the weather fluctuations of late winter give birth to an abundance of craters in asphalt.
But so far in 2018, wide shifts in temperature experienced throughout the region have given birth to a particularly nasty crop of potholes.
“It’s a crazy year this year. It’s a mess,” said Charlie Gischlar, spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, which can see hundreds of potholes a day on state roads during peak seasons.
“It is consistently bad everywhere,” said Mike Mussog, CEO of the Fort Washington-based Pavement Corp., whose firm contracts with private companies, the state and other public entities. He said this is the worst season he’s seen in years.
“This winter has been really destructive on roads,” Mussog said.
Causes of potholes are threefold, said Charles Schwartz, an engineering professor who researches pavement at the University of Maryland. But they all come down to one thing: water.
“Water and asphalt pavements don’t always get along that well,” Schwartz said.
Water can cause a stripping of asphalt pavement, which is basically a mix of gravel and oil byproduct. Or it can seep into the cracks and pores of the asphalt, freezing and expanding underground. Moisture can also seep into soil beneath the pavement, “liquefying” its foundation.
It’s all worse during “freeze and thaw cycles” that are typical around this time of year.
The first month and a half of 2018 has seen significant temperature swings. Baltimore’s low temperature was 1 degree on Jan. 7, but hit a high of 49 degrees just two days later and 62 degrees two days after that, according to the National Weather Service.
Similarly, temperatures swung from 11 degrees to 60 degrees from Jan. 18 to 20, and from 52 degrees to 12 degrees from Feb. 1 to 3.
“That is the definition of freeze-thaw,” Gischlar said. “That’s exactly what causes this.”
In recent weeks people have walked into Blue Ridge Sports Cars in Clipper Mill with cracked rims from running over potholes, owner Don Miller said. Damage is also bringing more drivers to B.J. Apple of Apple Auto on Harford Road.
“Roads are getting worse,” Apple said. “I just replaced a tire on a customer’s car because they hit a pothole.”
But Apple isn’t celebrating.
“I feel bad telling customers, ‘Hey, because of where you live you have to replace these items, because the government can’t maintain the roads properly.’ ”
Officials say drivers should report potholes: When people report them — and in the right way — crews work to fill them.
“The best eyes and ears are our customers,” Gischlar said. He said highway administration also sends out mobile “pothole patrols” that look for potholes to fill. They strive to respond to each pothole within one business day.
Baltimore’s Department of Transportation typically sees an increase in requests for service from January through March, spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said. During those months, she said, the city doubles or even triples the number of crews who patch up potholes around the city, averaging 3,180 potholes per month.
In Baltimore, drivers can report potholes to the 311 non-emergency phone number.
For potholes on state highways and other roads, drivers can go to the State Highway Administration website, roads.maryland.gov, and click “Contact us.”
Baltimore County fills about 58,000 potholes annually, according to its public works website. Potholes in Baltimore County can be reported online at baltimorecountymd.gov/iwant/report.html or by calling 410-887-3560.
Potholes are a perennial problem in the Baltimore region, as in other metropolitan areas. In the 1980s the city conducted a Valentine’s Day “adopt-a-pothole” campaign in which citizens could pay to have a pothole filled in their sweetheart’s name. A heart was stamped in the asphalt by the repair.
But there’s a Sisyphean dimension to the struggle: Pothole repair is tricky just when they’re most prevalent — in cold weather.
Temperatures need to be at least 50 degrees outside for hot asphalt to adhere to the roadway, Gischlar said. When it’s less than 50 degrees, the SHA and others use “cold patches” — cool asphalt placed onto the road to cover a pothole until weather warms up and a more permanent fix can be made.
The problem? “A cold patch lasts about as long as it takes for the truck to get to the next block,” Schwartz said.
Through a partnership facilitated by the University of Maryland, Schwartz spent two years consulting with Mussog and Pavement Corp. to refine a novel process for filling potholes called infrared repair. Workers heat up the pavement surrounding the pothole, allowing them to mix in hot asphalt with the existing materials in the road. They then compact it down.
“Think of it as like taking a hot frying pan and laying it over asphalt,” said Mussog.
“It’s a very, very simple process,” he said, but creates a stronger bond than a standard cold patch and can be performed year-round, even in cold weather.
For the company, pothole repair is a growth industry. But for drivers, pothole damage can cost thousands of dollars, and typically reimbursements are issued only when a pothole has been previously reported by a driver but not filled.
A man in a Mini Cooper ran over a pothole in Towson in January, causing more than $2,000 damage to his car. Baltimore County denied his application, saying that no one had filed a complaint about that particular pothole.
A county representative said the county can’t be held responsible for the maintenance of all public roads without assistance from citizens.
Mussog suggested that a lack of long-term maintenance on roads contributes to the number of potholes.
“Roadways are beyond capacity,” he said. “They get a lot of wear and tear.”