Cavity fillers

Crews fight to keep roads pothole-free

February 22, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

Blame water. It falls from the sky. It gets into cracks in the pavement. It freezes. It expands. The pavement buckles. A pothole is born.

As last week's hard freeze gives way to this week's thaw, transportation workers in the Baltimore area are fanning out to fill the cavities and craters pockmarking the region's roadways.

"This week we're putting out 12 trucks citywide rather than the usual eight," said Tony Wallnofer, deputy director of operations with the city Transportation Department.

Wallnofer said the workload is to be expected in wintertime, when the city's roads get caught up in what he calls the "freeze and thaw cycle."

Since the first of the year, Wallnofer said, Baltimore road crews have filled more than 12,000 potholes. And there's only one way to do it: one pothole at a time.

That's how Brenda Joseph and Mike Dawson were going about it yesterday in the 900 block of W. Madison St.

It is just one block in a city with about 2,000 miles of streets, but it boasted an impressive array of tire traps before Joseph and Dawson got through with it.

"We work hard out here," said Joseph, 41. "Rain, sleet, snow, everything," added Dawson, 22.

About one-third of the potholes the city fills are reported by individuals through the city's 311 phone system, Wallnofer said. Others are fixed after being noticed by the department's inspectors.

Wallnofer said that when a caller reports a pothole, the city will fix it in "48 hours - guaranteed." He said the department's rate of delivery on that promise is "as close to 100 percent as you can get." (The 48-hour rule does not include weekends.)

Potholes have from time to time become the stuff of politics.

Former Mayor William Donald Schaefer won renown for his relentless pothole patrols. He went on to serve two terms as governor and two as comptroller.

And just about a year ago, Del. Peter Franchot blindsided then-state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan by inviting a bipartisan group of mayors to a transportation budget hearing to protest the Ehrlich's administration's withholding of funds to help municipalities, among other things, fix potholes.

Flanagan called it an "ambush." Franchot got himself elected comptroller.

During last year's gubernatorial campaign, Flanagan repeatedly used the city's potholes as a metaphor for the alleged ineptitude of Mayor Martin O'Malley. But Flanagan's boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., hit a political pothole of his own on Election Day, losing to O'Malley and calling into question the efficacy of that line of political attack.

The politics of potholes seemed far away yesterday as Joseph and Dawson labored to repair the pitted pavement of Madison Street.

The pair work out of a black and yellow truck emblazoned with the seal of the City of Baltimore. In its rear, the truck holds about five to six tons of an asphalt mix with the brand name Silvex, which remains flexible even at low temperatures. It is used to make a type of repair known as a "cold patch," performed during the winter months as a temporary measure.

In this case, the cold patch doesn't come out of the truck cold. As Dawson shovels it from the truck into a pothole, the mixture gives off a cloud of steam. Viewed up close, the Silvex sparkles like black jewels as Joseph rakes it into a small mound filling the hole. It's actually rather pretty - for asphalt at least.

When the mixture is in place, Joseph - an 11-year veteran of the department - repeatedly pulls the cord of a squat, heavy piece of machinery known as a "ground-pounder." Like a recalcitrant lawnmower, it takes its time to roar into action, but eventually it does exactly what its name suggests - tamping down the asphalt mix until it is level with the pavement.

The patch will last for several months, but will be replaced with a more long-lasting hot asphalt patch in warm weather, Joseph said.

Not all potholes are as easy to deal with as the ones on Madison Street. Around the corner on Preston Street is a bigger job, a roughly 4-foot-by-12-foot area where the asphalt has been scraped away to bare concrete - apparently for work by city water crews.

For this job, Dawson and Joseph have to chip out a large portion of roadway that's still encased in ice. Then Dawson, who has been working on city roads for three years, spreads a chemical called a co-polymer that helps the asphalt mix bind to the concrete. He and Joseph then fill the hole with the asphalt mix. Where the potholes on Madison took about 10 minutes each, this one is about a half-hour's work.

Joseph said the patching work requires no special technique - just hard work. "It helps you stay toned," she said.

The city keeps careful records of each pothole repair it performs as part of its CitiStat program. As a result, Wallnofer was able to report that his department fixed precisely 96,894 potholes last year. He estimated that pothole repair accounts for about $500,000 of the city's roads budget each year.

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