As winter ends, pothole monster rears its ugly head


March 29, 1993

It looms in the middle of the street like the gaping mouth of a hungry creature in the pavement.

The jagged asphalt rim is its teeth, the shallow pit its stomach. The wheels of unsuspecting drivers are its prey.

Mistakenly drive into a pothole, and you will feel the jolt of your front-end alignment going out of whack, of your tire getting ripped, your rim dented, your strut bent.

Somewhere, a mechanic must be smiling.

Potholes always flourish in the waning days of winter, but the blizzard two weeks ago produced a bumper crop. And motorists are feeling the consequences.

"The complaints are still coming in," says Richard Cox, Baltimore County's acting chief of highway maintenance. "Spring is always our hardest season, but there are a lot more than usual."

In the city, maintenance crews that normally patch 1,000 potholes each week were filling as many as 1,500 a day for several days once the snow had melted.

At the current rate, the city public works department expects to surpass the 1991-1992 record of 51,693 pothole repairs in a year.

The city expects to spend $2 million to keep its roads in shape.

"We usually see a lot [of potholes] this time of year, but after the storm, they were out there a bit higher than normal," says Fred Marc, Baltimore's highways chief.

Experts say the proliferation of potholes can be traced directly to the cold, wet winter weather we've been experiencing this month. Water, salt and ice are the enemies of concrete and asphalt.

Ray Dotterweich, an engineer in the State Highway Administration's Office of Materials and Research, says potholes can be caused by several factors.

First, the pothole may be caused by water getting under the road surface. When the water freezes, it expands, and the ice presses up against the pavement. Or it might be water eroding the subsurface, creating a soft spot that vehicles push down and crack.

The freeze-thaw cycle can be destructive to any asphalt surface. Spread in layers, asphalt can be disrupted by water that penetrates the seams, Mr. Dotterweich says.

Salt applied to roads to melt snow and ice corrodes the reinforcing steel mesh or bars inside.

The formation of rust on steel creates a force "up to 10 times the strength of concrete," Mr. Dotterweich says.

Workers apply either a cold or hot patching material made of asphalt and an aggregate of crushed stone. The cold technique is cheaper and more expeditious; the hot mix, at 300 degrees Fahrenheit, offers the more permanent repair.

Mr. Cox says Baltimore County crews have been using cold patch because of the weather, but likely will repair the potholes again with the hot mix when the temperature is consistently above 60 degrees.

City workers use only the cold patch. It costs about $25 to fix each pothole using that technique.

Commuter unhappy with sunny talk

Intrepid Commuter's favorite letter of the week comes from Howard P. Nicholson of Randallstown, who thinks traffic broadcasters have their heads in the clouds.

"I can hold my tongue no longer," he writes. "I'm tired of hearing local traffic reporters blame traffic problems on sunshine."

Mr. Nicholson says he has been commuting on the west side of the Baltimore Beltway for 10 years and has yet to experience sunlight so severe that it should hamper traffic. In fact, he finds he's generally in the same, predictable rush-hour traffic backup rain or shine.

"The west side of the Beltway suffers from . . . increased volume," he says. "Miraculously, every morning on the Beltway west side, just after the I-95 exit, sun notwithstanding, the backup goes away for the remainder of the trip.

"It seems as if our traffic reporters, given the task of saying something, feel the need to attribute the backups to something and if you don't see anything out there on the road slowing traffic down, it must be the sun.

"I've experienced Los Angeles freeway commuting traffic. I can just hear one of our local traffic guys reporting that those messes are attributable to the sunshine! They could save the government planning types out there lots of headaches. Just pass out sunglasses."

We think Mr. Nicholson makes a good point. But we also would caution that traffic engineers tell us that any distraction -- sunshine, accidents on the opposite side of the Beltway, and even hot air balloons -- can slow traffic.

Yet one must wonder what would happen if the state handed out 100,000 pairs of Oakley Sub-Zero sunglasses to commuters caught in west-side backups. Probably nothing, but at least many Baltimore drivers would look cool.

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