Attack of the car-swallowing potholes


The deep freeze that held Maryland in an icy grip was good for one thing, at least: It kept the potholes at bay.

Now that the thaw is on, conditions are perfect for the asphalt eruptions that swallow tires in a single gulp, rattle the windows of buses and have road crews working overtime just to keep up.

Which, of course, is impossible. Potholes are multiplying like mosquitoes in August, to the never-ending frustration of those charged with plugging them. Baltimore has about 200 workers on full-time pothole duty. The state has an additional 250 or so toiling on highways and state roads.

"In a word, the roads are rough," said Tony Wallnofer, chief of transportation maintenance for the city. "The worst combination is what we have now - high daytime and low nighttime temperatures. The ground expands and contracts with the temperatures, and it manifests itself in a pothole."

The city filled 8,300 potholes in January, he said, and is now filling close to a thousand per day - a pace that could match last year's staggering total of 111,555 potholes filled. That was an increase of 33,000 potholes over the previous year.

State roads are also susceptible, especially bridges. Last week the State Highway Administration shut down two lanes for a time on sections of the Baltimore Beltway over Joppa and Liberty roads. Many potholes had become so big they needed immediate attention.

Also last week, the state shut two lanes of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which carries Interstate 95 over the Potomac River outside Washington, to fix potholes. "That bridge is in a further state of disrepair than other bridges and is even more susceptible to potholes," said state roads spokesman David Buck.

Old city streets

But city streets seem to fare the worst - primarily, officials say, because they're so old. Cracks in road surfaces allow water to seep in. When the temperature dips below freezing, the water turns to ice and expands. That makes the cracks larger and weakens the road, which leads to potholes.

"Honestly, they're all over," said the city's Wallnofer. "It's a citywide problem, and we're addressing it citywide. Older roads are the most susceptible, and we have an abundance of those."

Officials make a priority of primary roads and those that carry commuters into and out of the city. Roads that lead out of town are treated in the morning, so they're ready for the afternoon rush. Inbound routes are treated in the evening, so they're in shape for the next morning.

City residents are encouraged to call 311 with pothole complaints. Officials say they will try to fill the holes within 48 hours. Those who don't live in the city can go to the State Highway Administration Web site,, to find numbers for their local officials.

The deep freeze kept potholes to a minimum because it cut down on the number of freeze-and-thaw cycles. Instead, it was all freeze. But with warmer daytime temperatures melting snow and ice, water seeps into cracks in roads, then freezes at night.

Wintertime pothole repair is quick and crude. City workers shovel asphalt into each hole, spread it around with a rake, then pound 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 apply what they call "cold patches" to the roads. Hot asphalt mixes could freeze on the truck before even getting into the ground. The cold patches are easier to manipulate, but they're not as sturdy as hot asphalt and often must be replaced.

Baltimore County has about 175 people on pothole duty, and they filled 4,274 potholes last month. More than 48,000 potholes were repaired in the county last year, up from about 43,000 in 2002.

Auto repair shops around the region say they've seen a spate of pothole-damaged cars lately. The impact of tires hitting potholes can dent rims, break the liner of tires - leading to leaks or blowouts - or affect a vehicle's alignment and suspension, according to auto mechanics. Repair costs can run into the hundreds of dollars.

"I just saw a young lady here with a big dent in her rim," said Brad Perry, an area sales manager for Goodyear Tire Centers. "To really bend something, it's got to be a pretty big hole, hit at the right angle at the wrong speed."

Busiest time

Ron Krueger, manager of Kimmel Tire & Auto on Howard Street, said the winter months are among his busiest. "What happens is people hit potholes, rims get bent, front-end parts get bent and tires get blown out," Krueger said. "When people come in, they're complaining about potholes."

But cars aren't the only vehicles taking a beating. The Maryland Transit Administration says maintenance costs on its bus fleet increase in the winter because of poor road conditions. Among the biggest problems are the electronic systems that display the bus's route number and destination. Potholes often jar the systems to the point that they're inoperable.

"If the pothole's big enough, it affects every aspect of the vehicle to some degree or another," said Branco Vlacich, director of maintenance for the MTA. "A bus, unlike a car, cannot maneuver around a pothole. We've just got to do the best we can. We ask our operators to slow down and use care."

Others say the city's poor roads make them prone to potholes. City officials say they have a $1 billion backlog of road and bridge maintenance work. They say Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s transfer of $400 million out of the state Transportation Trust Fund last year is partly to blame.

"The governor has taken some funds out of the Transportation Trust Fund to shore up the general fund, and that has had an impact on all municipalities, Baltimore City included," said Baltimore Transportation Director Alfred Foxx.

Less money

This year the state is giving counties and Baltimore City about 17 percent less money for transportation projects than last year. In the 2003 fiscal year, the state provided $429 million to local jurisdictions for transportation; that was cut to $355 million this year. About half of that went to Baltimore City.

"Many jurisdictions have had to reduce or scrap their maintenance program for the year, and that really hurts when you get into bad weather," said John White, a spokesman for the AAA in Maryland.

In response, Jack Cahalan, spokesman for the Maryland transportation department, said the state is doing the best it can. "There's two important things to remember," he said. "No. 1, the state is in a financial crisis. And No. 2, we have experienced two very difficult winters."

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