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Baltimore has plenty of potholes. Which neighborhoods get the most complaints, and how does the city go about fixing them?

William Howard knows the pockmarked streets of Baltimore the way few others do.

Monday through Friday — and sometimes for overtime pay on Saturdays — the 54-year-old steers his crew’s truck through them to load up with hot-mix, or sometimes, cold-patch asphalt. Then, he turns his attention to the city’s 311 reports, which determine where he’ll spend his day.

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“From January to December, we’re doing potholes,” Howard said. “That’s all we do. We don’t go and do this, we don’t go and do that, we go simply to potholes every day.”

Typically, Howard would be one of two dozen pothole fillers across eight Baltimore City Department of Transportation crews. During the pandemic, the city is using only one crew for each of the four sectors of the city “for the safety of DOT personnel,” said city transportation spokeswoman Kathy Dominick.

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Baltimore spends a varying amount each year to cover the cracks and fill the holes that have been known to devour wheel rims, bumpers, scooters and bicycle frames.

The city does not separate out the annual cost of pothole maintenance in its overall milling and paving budget, which increased from $6.9 million in 2016 to nearly $9.7 million last year, according to the Department of Transportation.

“Because potholes are considered safety or emergency issues, they are always a priority for DOT,” Dominick said.

The city uses citizen 311 complaints to direct crews like Howard’s to the roads that require patching. The city received between roughly 20-40 pothole repair requests a day in March and April.

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The neighborhoods with the most 311 reports aren’t necessarily the ones with the worst potholes. But this year, Belair-Edison in East Baltimore and Frankford in Northeast led the city with 40 reports apiece through April 8, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of 311 data.

The Pulaski Industrial Area (34 reports), Hamilton Hills (33) and the Canton Industrial Area (31) were third through fifth. Downtown and Mount Washington tied for sixth with 30, followed by Canton and Homeland (29 each) and Coldstream Homestead Montebello (28).

The roads receiving the most complaints were, perhaps unsurprisingly, traffic-heavy city thoroughfares: Harford Road, Greenmount Avenue, Northern Parkway, Eastern Avenue and Greenspring Avenue.

Pothole requests to 311 this year through March 26

Note: Multiple requests for the same address are counted as one request. Source: Baltimore Open Data

Howard, David Myers and Kevin Brooks poured the 300-degree hot-mix asphalt from the back of the truck and shoveled and raked it into a series of rainwater-filled potholes on Kloman Street, near the Clare Street Light Rail crossing and the BGE generation station in Westport, on a recent afternoon.

After being raked evenly across a pothole and packed down, the hot-mix asphalt takes about 25 minutes to settle and harden. (Water in the pothole isn’t a concern, as long as it isn’t running; it helps cool the pavement, Howard said.)

The cold patch, which is less expensive because it doesn’t require being heated, takes longer to settle — 45 minutes to an hour — but can be used on colder days.

Howard and his crew fill about 15 to 20 potholes per day, he said.

Less traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year hasn’t left the roads smoother, said Howard, who has filled potholes for the city on and off for about eight years.

“I don’t see a difference,” he said. “It’s like the same every year.”

The pandemic, he pointed out, didn’t stop the elements.

While traffic takes a toll, moisture and temperature are the biggest pothole culprits. Rainwater and melted snow and ice seep into cracks, expand as they freeze over the winter, then contract as they thaw in the spring, loosening the pavement and causing potholes.

Of course, the road salt and the plows that precede and follow a snowfall don’t help, Howard said.

“The salt eats the concrete up, and the constant grinding of cars and vehicles upon the salted, cracked up concrete — it eventually busts open,” he said.

The spring, when the temperature is usually 50 to 75 degrees, is the best weather for paving the potholes, said Keena Rucker, their supervisor.

While one driver zipped past, hardly slowing down, to beat an oncoming Light Rail train, another stopped to roll down his window and holler to the neon-vested crew: “Thank y’all very much! We need it back here deeply.”

The extreme cold, the extended low temperatures, the snow and ice, and the salt used to treat the roads created a perfect brew for potholes in 2019. (Baltimore Sun video)

Rucker thanked him and said those types of compliments are “what makes it all worth it.” She urged people to submit 311 reports if they see potholes on their streets and pleaded for patience if they aren’t filled within a day or so.

“People have to realize the city is a large city with a small amount of workers,” Rucker said. “We’re trying to do what we can do, the best we can do. ... Make 311 complaints, and we’ll get ‘em done as soon as we can.”

Howard doesn’t keep a mental list of the biggest beasts he’s battled, but he said he has filled cavernous trenches that have swallowed nearly all of a 4-ton truckload of asphalt.

While the job can seem insurmountable in a city as pothole-riddled as Baltimore, filling them is fulfilling work, Howard said.

“You’re riding with something that can fix that,” he said. “And not only that, it pays the bills.”

Baltimore Sun data journalist Steve Earley contributed to this article.

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