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1,000 craters a day being fixed in city THE ART OF PLUGGING POTHOLES


They are cosmetic surgeons working to smooth the pockmarked face of Baltimore.

And they have been very busy.

Using shovels, rakes, tampers and mountains of a gooey gravel and asphalt mix, work crews for the City that Reads have been laboring to save motorists from the City that Knocks Front Ends Out of Whack.

Since the big snow and ice storms hit town Jan. 17, a fleet of 30 repair trucks has been fixing 1,000 potholes a day.

Before the fiscal year ends June 30, the city will have spent $1 million to fill potholes, at a cost of about $25 per hole.

And still they can't get to every complaint called in, from reports of moon-size craters on Pulaski Highway to chinks no deeper than a coffee cup.

"Clinton Street is bad -- terrible. You can't even get out of your car without being on a 90-degree angle," said Lucy Stilwell, a secretary at Auggie's auto repair on North Clinton Street in East Baltimore.

"They just keep putting asphalt on top of the bad spots, and the street's now three feet higher than the [sidewalk] pavement.

"I park half on the pavement and half on the street just to keep the car level."

That sounds like classic highway hyperbole to George Balog, the city's director of public works, but he promises to have the report checked out.

If things are as bad as Ms. Stillwell says, the stretch where Clinton Street and Pulaski Highway meet may come under a $25 million road reconstruction program or a $17 million resurfacing program scheduled for summer.

Until then -- as snow and rain seep into cracks in the street, freeze, expand and buckle the asphalt -- workers will be playing patch-up.

"All the road salt and ice and cold makes the asphalt weak, and it starts popping up and leaving holes," said Steve Henderson, a supervisor following a repair crew through Fells Point yesterday.

"We're just trying to take care of the holes."

Actually, Mr. Henderson rides around making sure laborers being paid about $8.50 an hour aren't loafing on the job.

Baltimore's potholes are being filled by people like Billy Pettyjohn, Thurman Speight, Don Robinson, Gordon Richards and Rick Rickels, the five-man crew following a path along

Thames Street yesterday and leaving a jagged trail of black patches behind.

Mr. Rickels drives the truck.

Mr. Speight measures the holes with a naked eye and a well-shod foot, and reports data to Mr. Rickels, who records them for supervisors downtown.

Mr. Richards and Mr. Pettyjohn take turns filling each hole with Perma Patch mix from the back of the truck, raking it even, and tamping it down.

Mr. Robinson stands behind the truck with a red flag and waves cars around the movable work site.

Yes, Baltimore. This is your $5.90 property tax rate at work.

By 2 p.m., as the crew members turn north on Caroline Street, they already have about 100 holes behind them.

They use a patented "cold patch," an asphalt mix that doesn't have to be heated before it goes on the ground.

The repairs are touted as "permanent," but as the crew moves along, the workers find plenty of last year's permanent patches cracked and broken.

"I've been doing this about 17 years, and I've seen some big potholes," said Mr. Speight, who believes that this winter has left more roadway blemishes than any other in memory.

"I've seen plenty of big ones, but I guess the biggest was 20 feet by 5 feet."

The average city pothole measures 1 1/2 feet wide and 5 inches deep.

Last year, the city fixed about 30,000 of them between the end of summer and early spring. That number should easily be passed this year.

One of them may even be filled next week by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has expressed interest in the pick-and-shovel work that keeps the city moving.

Bending his back to fill a hole with a shovel full of patching mix, Billy Pettyjohn says: "It's pretty simple work."

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