Drivers shake, rattle and roll over holey streets of Baltimore


The casualties of the Pothole Wars could be found on Pratt Street yesterday - five shiny hubcaps stacked neatly against an iron fence. They were just down the road from a series of asphalt eruptions that had, apparently, won the latest skirmish with the automobile.

Then a Baltimore road crew arrived in a dump truck filled with 5 tons of PermaPatch. The workers saw the parade of hubcaps and the ravaged roadway.

They whistled in the frigid morning air, imagining the violent ba-BUM that tore the covers from their wheels.

"Look at that," said roads supervisor Steve Henderson, whose crew made quick work of the gaping holes. "It looks like a bomb went off."

Last week's record-breaking snowstorm and the torrents of rain that followed have left roads across the state pockmarked with potholes. Deep and wide, they are jaw-rattling, tire-eating monsters.

City crews filled 2,700 potholes Monday - their busiest day this season - and expected to do almost as many yesterday. They have not touched the secondary streets, focusing instead on getting the main roads in shape before more snow comes.

"We're taking a beating this year," Henderson said yesterday on Orleans Street as three of his workers trailed behind a dump truck filled with five tons of asphalt. Every few feet, they would stop and fill in another hole.

"I have seen some big ones," said crew member Nathaniel Brunson, who has worked on city roads for 15 years. "But none like this."

Avoid swerving

City and state call centers say they have seen a spike in pothole complaints this week. Motorists have also been venting their frustrations to AAA, the motor club, which promises to forward pothole reports e-mailed to to the appropriate agencies.

"It is among the worst in memory, if not history," AAA spokeswoman Deborah DeYoung said of the pothole problem. Phones have been ringing nonstop at the agency with calls from motorists wondering how to protect their cars. They are being given surprising advice.

"The worst possible thing to do is swerve suddenly to avoid these things," DeYoung said. "It's much better for your car to roll through it because that does a lot less damage to your wheel and tire."

As long as you don't mind losing your hubcaps. Potholes got worse during the past week, officials said, because road crews were focused on snow removal and then flood control, not street maintenance. Now the potholes have the crews' full attention - at least until it snows again.

The science of wintertime pothole repair is quick and crude. The city workers yesterday shoveled asphalt into each hole, spread it around with a rake, then pounded it down with a hand tamper, a wooden pole with a flat square of metal at one end. It takes only a few minutes.

In the winter, crews can apply only what they call "cold patches" to the roads. Hot asphalt mixes would freeze on the truck before even getting into the ground. The cold patches are easier to manipulate in this freezing weather, but they're not as sturdy as hot asphalt and often must be replaced.

"The problems are mainly in places where we've patched before, or weak spots in the road - this [weather] pushes them over the edge," said Tony Wallnofer, chief of transportation maintenance for the city. He added, "Things are looking rough, but we have the situation under control."

The city's pothole repair system calls for the roads that lead out of the city to be treated in the mornings, so they're ready for the afternoon rush hour. Then the inbound routes are treated in the evenings, so they're ready for the next morning's rush.

Potholes are created when water seeps into the cracks in the road's surface. When it freezes, the water turns into ice and expands. That makes the cracks bigger and weakens the road. The pavement is then easily ripped up by passing cars and trucks.

"Pavement is layers of material," said Peter Stephanos, director of materials and technology with the State Highway Administration. "Typically, when you see a pothole, it looks like someone's peeled a layer off."

Beware spring thaw

Potholes also are formed in another way, Stephanos said. When the spring thaw comes, water seeping underneath roadways can weaken the soil and thus disrupt the road above. Portions of road that have patches are most susceptible to this kind of damage, Stephanos said.

That has many people worried that road conditions could be worse this spring than they are now.

"When the thaw comes, then things are really going to open up," said David Fidler, spokesman for the Baltimore County Department of Public Works.

Last year, Fidler said, Baltimore County plugged 42,942 potholes - roughly half the 85,000 it filled in 1996, the last time the region had a major snowstorm.

Other jurisdictions report similar figures. In Baltimore, officials said they filled 28,960 potholes this winter through Feb. 9. Thousands more have been filled since then, but they don't have an exact number.

The real work will come in the spring, they said, when the temporary cold patches must be replaced by permanent hot mixes.

Until then, crews like Steve Henderson's will remain out on the streets, plugging away.

As the crew inched its way down Orleans Street toward the skyscrapers of downtown yesterday, Henderson shook his head.

"There are hundreds more," he said, then kept on moving.

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