More than 500 motorists have filed claims against the state for chips, dings and cracks in their cars after a special type of asphalt surface crumbled prematurely in January along about 250 miles of Maryland's roads, state officials say.
But the state is denying all those claims, insisting that neither the State Highway Administration nor its contractors were negligent in mixing and spreading the 3/4 -inch anti-skid, anti-splash material. The pitted surface is commonly called "popcorn" because it resembles the popular snack food.
While popcorn normally is expected to last from eight to 10 years, the affected road surfaces failed after only five or six years, SHA officials said.
Highway officials decided last spring the problem was somehow linked to a rapid series of freezes and thaws in January. But SHA engineers and asphalt trade groups still say they can't figure out exactly how the temperature swings caused the material to come unglued.
Ronald B. Leve of Ellicott City, who commuted through stretches of loose popcorn on Route 32 in January and February, said his 1988 Honda Prelude suffered scratches, nicks and small dents to the car's front bumper, fenders, hood and roof. He filed papers June 10 asking the state to pay $1,011 for repairs. He waited, he said, until the road was resurfaced and no new damage would occur.
But the insurance division of the treasurer's office turned down his request last month. His auto insurance company also has declined to pay the bill. Now he's not sure where to turn.
"There's no such thing as a cheap paint job," he said.
Mr. Leve and others with rejected claims have up to three years to appeal the state's decision by filing lawsuits to recover damages, said Gregory Pecoraro, special assistant to state Treasurer Lucille B. Maurer. Mr. Pecoraro said about 500 motorists filed claims with the treasurer's office, mostly for chipped paint and cracked windshields.
"Naturally we're very sorry about the impact that it's had," said Hal Kassoff, state highway administrator. "But the issue on claims is whether there was any negligence on the part of the state or its contractors."
"If there was any negligence, we would not hesitate to pay claims," he said. "But the mix that was put down here was state-of-the-art at the time. It was put down in many different areas by many different contractors -- we can find no evidence that there was negligence. What we do find is that if it were not for this act of God, this freeze-thaw cycle, it would not have occurred."
Carlos Rosenberger, a Pennsylvania-based district engineer for the Asphalt Institute, was one of the experts baffled by the failure of some of Maryland's popcorn.
"We tried to pinpoint what went wrong with it, and we could not," he said.
The state has spent more than $14 million over the past several months repairing the damaged surfaces along stretches of all the state's interstate highways -- Route 4, Route 30, Route 32, Route 140, U.S. 15, U.S. 40 and other major roadways.
Mr. Kassoff said the crumbled popcorn was removed and replaced by the "dense" asphalt mixture that is the standard material used on most roads and highways.
That does not mean, he added, that the state has given up on popcorn.
Only a small percentage of the popcorn surfaces failed, he said. And the porous material has safety advantages -- draining away surface water and reducing skidding, splashing and noise in wet weather.
A reformulated mixture, based on the latest research in asphalt technology, is still being applied on some other roads. The new popcorn recipe includes a less porous type of stone and more liquid asphalt, he said.