The extreme cold, the extended low temperatures, the snow and ice and the salt used to treat the roads have created a perfect brew for potholes. (Baltimore Sun video)
For the second year in a row, the road to spring is paved with more potholes than usual.
March marks the start of Maryland's annual "pothole season," as one official put it Tuesday, but a second winter in a row of frigid cold and repeated snowstorms has made the deterioration of its roads all the more severe.
"Potholes are frustrating but unfortunately inevitable after a long, cold winter with dozens of snow and ice storms," said State Highway Administrator Melinda B. Peters.
The SHA is bracing for the worst, said spokesman David Buck. "We expect to see a large amount of potholes this year because of the winter we had."
Potholes form when water seeps into cracks in roads, then freezes and expands, pushing the pavement upward, the SHA said. When vehicles run over that crumbling surface, it can collapse and chip away in pieces. Heavy plows and the corrosive salt and brine used to prime streets for plowing can add to the problem.
Larger potholes can damage wheels and tires. AAA Mid-Atlantic received about 2,800 tire-related calls for roadside assistance in the first nine days of March, compared with 1,800 in the first nine days of February — a 55 percent increase that AAA officials "largely attribute to the number of potholes that are currently plaguing our region," said Ragina C. Averella, a spokeswoman for the automotive advocacy group.
AAA's Car Care Centers in the region have seen an increase in "motorists coming in for alignments, damaged tires and bent rims since last week's storm," she said.
Rob Busick said he was taking his usual route to work last week along Camp Meade Road in Anne Arundel County, when he was startled by what he estimated to be a 10- to 15-inch dip in the road.
"I've hit a pothole before but nothing like this," he said. "This is car-wrecking here. It actually damaged my front end. My car shakes now."
He said it took him two hours searching for the right person to call and file an insurance claim.
Officials, for their part, want to remind residents that they face a large backlog of potholes to patch even as they issue assurances that they are rushing to make fixes.
Contractors have begun mixing hot asphalt for the repairs, and drivers will start to see patching crews blocking lanes as they work to fix the roads. Crews are searching for potholes to fill and responding to complaints, Peters said.
"Drivers can help us locate potholes by reporting specific locations though our online system," Peters said.
This year, the SHA says its goal is to respond to potholes within two days.
William Johnson, Baltimore's transportation director, said city inspectors are out on the streets looking for potholes, but residents who spot them should call 311.
The city's goal is to respond to complaints within two days as well, but Johnson said meeting that goal might be difficult this "pothole season," given the number the city is dealing with.
"Rest assured we're coming," Johnson said. "We hear you. ... We recognize the impact it has on your neighborhoods."
On Tuesday, the Transportation Department said it has filled nearly 25,000 potholes this year and will fill thousands more as the weather warms. It has 14 crews working six days a week on pothole repairs.
Many thousands more will be filled by the SHA and the state's other jurisdictions, though some are still trying to measure the damage.
Andy Barth, a spokesman for Howard County government, said the county won't know the extent of the damage, or the cost of repairs, until the potential for another freeze is firmly behind it.
"Colder weather creates more potholes, and it's been a very cold winter, obviously, so there are obviously a lot of potholes," he said. "But it's too soon to tell whether it's more than in [past years], partly because the process of freeze and thaw is what creates the problem. We'll see as the winter progresses."
Lauren Watley, a spokeswoman for Baltimore County, said it expects to fill 10,000 potholes this month alone. All of last year, it filled 63,732. County crews are out looking for potholes, but those reported by citizens are given priority.
The work is big business.
Last year, Baltimore County spent an average of $25.36 per pothole, Watley said — amounting to more than $1.6 million.
The city said its potholes cost $10 to $12 to repair, and that the funding comes from the highway maintenance fund. Last year, the city filled 90,000 potholes, which would amount to between $900,000 and $1.08 million.
Annapolis Public Works Director David Jarrell said the money for pothole repairs comes from a street repair budget of a little over $1 million.
Cindy Mumby, a spokeswoman for Harford County, said the county has been receiving more calls than usual from residents reporting potholes and crews have been out all week patching.
The SHA said it averaged about $2.5 million a year over the past five years on pothole repairs.
After last winter, the state granted local jurisdictions $10 million in aid to cover pothole costs, following previous cuts to local aid from highway user revenue, which the jurisdictions use for pothole repairs.
Last month, Gov. Larry Hogan announced an added $25 million in highway aid to local jurisdictions for next year. A spokesman said the infusion would bring local highway funds to their highest level since 2009.
A good portion of that funding goes to local contractors, who complement county and state crews in tackling the roadwork needed after bruising winters.
That work is about to begin in earnest, said Pierce Flanigan, president of P. Flanigan & Sons, a Baltimore-based asphalt company that holds substantial contracts with the state and the port of Baltimore.
Local government agencies often rely on their own crews to make so-called "cold-patch" repairs — considered temporary fixes — to roads in winter months, Flanigan said. As temperatures begin to rise, contractors start "hot-patch" repairs, he said.
Hot-patch asphalt, a mixture of rocks and petroleum-derived liquid asphalt heated to 300 degrees, is much more reliable, longer-lasting and cheaper, Flanigan said, but can't be used in temperatures below about 45 or 50 degrees.
Cold-mix asphalt, which is mixed with chemical additives and is more expensive, can be used at much lower temperatures, but doesn't last as long, he said.
"You can fill up the pothole to keep it safe," he said, "but you're not going to have the years of service out of that patch that you'd expect from a hot-mix patch."
Baltimore Sun reporters Yvonne Wenger and Brandi Bottalico contributed to this article.