Ah, the joys of driving in the spring. There's the cool breeze coming through the window you can finally open. The chime of the rain as it gently washes your car. And the sudden thud as you run the car right into an unexpected pothole.
Potholes rank high on the short list of drivers' frustrations in the spring. The frost is gone, the hazardous weather is mostly over, but the annual thaw leads the water that pooled under roads and expanded as ice during wintertime to collapse the surface pavement.
Harford County's Public Works Department reported 114 pothole complaints between Jan. 1 and Wednesday, 87 more than roughly the same period last year, highways maintenance chief Kenneth Gemmill said via email Thursday.
"From January 1 through March 31, 2014 we received 27 service requests," he wrote. "The difference between this year and last is the extreme cold spells that affected the area - the freeze/thaw cycle is affecting many of our blacktop, tar & chip and earth road surfaces."
Most of the pothole calls have come from the Abingdon and Bel Air areas, Gemmill said. Some have also been made in the Jarrettsville and Whiteford areas, he said.
The county has gotten numerous calls on its pothole hotline, 410-638-3376, which drivers are encouraged to use to alert staff about pothole issues.
"In light of the problem, our Chief of Highways has directed all field personnel in the Division to work on addressing pothole issues for the past two weeks," Stratmeyer wrote. "This effort has been very effective in pulling our available resources to address this primary concern for the county's motorists and make the road's as passable and safe as they are able."
County Executive Barry Glassman said he appreciates the work of all the pothole-filling crews.
"They are working hard after this extraordinarily cold winter to improve the safety of county roads for our citizens," Glassman said via e-mail.
Highway crews have been focused on "cold-patching" the holes, using a recycled asphalt material that is readily compactible, does not have to be heated, is advertised as a permanent patch and can be stored for extended periods of time, Stratmeyer explained.
Although potholes happen everywhere, busier areas may be more susceptible, Stratmeyer said.
"Higher traffic volumes or vehicular loads (i.e., our main roads) are more susceptible because of the increased loading," he said."The key to preventing potholes is to keep the road's base course dry through proper and effective preventative measures.This can include crack sealing, micro-surfacing, thin-lift asphalt resurfacing and regular resurfacing.Prior to performing any of those maintenance items, existing deficiencies in the road are addressed through cut and patch methods, or through milling of the surface.When the road is in significant need of repair, the entire road will be reconstructed."
Preventive maintenance means keeping water out of the base course, he said.
"Older pavements are more susceptible to this because they start losing the elasticity of the liquid bituminous as it ages and cracks," Stratmeyer said. "Therefore, if we are to identify which roads have more problems than others, it would be our roads that have gone the longest without surface maintenance and with heavier traffic loads and volumes."
The county is expecting $1.2 million in highway user revenue funding from the state this year, he said. The money to fix potholes, however, comes from all sources of revenues in the highways fund, he said.
State, local roads
The State Highway Administration, which has stayed busy filling potholes on roads across the state, has spent $137,000 on holes in Harford County for the first eight months of the fiscal year, from July 1 to February, "which would put us ahead of an average year," spokesperson David Buck said.
"In average over the past five years, our maintenance shop in Churchville has spent about $170,000 annually filling potholes," he added.
"Our crews are out every single decent weather day filling potholes. While it is still below 50 degrees, our crews will fill the potholes with cold patch," he said. "Many of those patches will last months or years; some will form again quickly based on location and how much traffic hits that area directly."
"Every county and every jurisdiction has been hit hard by potholes following the brutal winter. The constant freeze/thaw cycle, following by snow/rain/ice and vehicles constantly running over the pavement makes the mid-Atlantic area (where its 90 in the summer and zero in the winter) susceptible to potholes," he wrote.
The Town of Bel Air has also seen potholes, some of which could be the result of a BGE Operation Pipeline project that began last year but was not completed before the start of winter, town public works director Stephen Kline said.
"BGE's contractor performing the gas line work was unable to finish the work before winter and had to close up all the openings in our roadways and temporarily patch them until this spring," Kline said. "Many of the very rough roadway conditions currently in town are a result of this project. My staff and I are anxious to begin overseeing these repairs hopefully in the next couple of weeks."
The town has "several persistent potholes" that keep returning because the area is wet and receives "tremendous traffic," he said.
"One such area in town is located on Market Place Drive heading towards the Home Depot from Route 24," Kline said. "This street handles thousands and thousands of vehicles daily, as well as heavy tractor trailer traffic, making it quite difficult for temporary patches to hold."
"We inspect this location daily and on the weekends as well," he said. "If the pot holes reappear, we fill them again to make the roadway as safe as possible. Once the asphalt plant reopens and starts making blacktop on a regular basis, we will be able to permanently patch these bad areas."
The timing of resources from the asphalt plant in Churchville has also been an issue for places like the City of Havre de Grace.
Havre de Grace has been seeing potholes since the end of February and the beginning of March on its 40-plus miles of streets, public works director Larry Parks said.
"The plants in Churchville don't always make blacktop," he said Thursday. "There will come a point where it's always going to be available, the closer you get to spring."
"We have managed to get a couple of holes filled, but we have hundreds to do," he said.
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Parks said, however, that is not out of the ordinary for the start of spring. He could not name specific locations that have especially bad pothole issues, but said if a site gets too problematic, the city will just dig out a larger swatch and pave the entire area.
"We have got a couple places marked out on Chapel Road to do that now," he said Thursday.
Some complaints about potholes have come in, but "we are not swamped with it or anything," he said.
Parks said the goal is to get the pothole work done "before grass-mowing season starts."
Kline said Bel Air has used about 150 employee hours working on potholes this year and went through about 150 bags of material for a total cost of $1,500.
"We utilize a temporary cold patch material that comes in 40-pound bags," he said."The material in the bags is much easier to handle, stores well and, many times, works very well."
"From what I have seen driving in other areas in the state and county, the town is faring well," he added.