March 24, 2014

Road Worrier: Expect plenty of potholes after a cold, wet NC winter

Raleigh and NCDOT maintenance crews are expecting a busy spring season as they begin patching potholes on city streets and North Carolina highways after a brutal freeze-thaw-freeze cycle this winter.

Get ready for a plague of potholes.

As a reward for surviving an unusually cold and wet winter, North Carolina drivers may be doomed to suffer a rough and bumpy spring.

“It’s going to be bad,” said Chris McGee, who worries about pavement in his job as Raleigh’s transportation field services manager. “I’ve been out on the streets, and I’m already seeing increased fatigue cracking, which leads to potholes.”

And what led to all that cracking was weeks of raining and snowing, warming and freezing. A numbing string of winter storms swept across the state – mostly in January and February but persisting into mid-March – and planted the icy seeds of potholes that will be sprouting for weeks and months to come.

“What makes it bad for potholes is the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle,” McGee said. “If it were to get cold and stay 20 degrees for weeks at a time, that wouldn’t be half as bad as going down to 30 and up to 35 and down again.”

All that water seeps into pavement cracks, turns to ice, expands the old cracks, melts and seeps into new cracks. Drivers see the effects in alligator-pattern cracks on the street surface. The pounding of traffic breaks the weakened asphalt into chunks. The result is another pothole or a string of potholes.

It’s already starting.

“Saturday night I was exiting off Capital Boulevard onto Wake Forest Road, and one of the holes there just about ate my tire,” said Randy Bower, 43, of Raleigh. “That stretch of Wake Forest Road is pretty bad.”

Triangle commuters may recall that 2009 and 2010 were bad years for big holes that blew tires, bent rims and banged front-end alignments.

More recent pothole seasons have been comparatively mild. They followed tame winters. McGee said city street crews sprinkled less than 500 tons of salt on snowy Raleigh streets over the preceding three winters combined. But for this past winter alone, the total was 4,300 tons on Raleigh’s 1,055 miles of city-maintained streets.

The state Department of Transportation has spent more than $62 million so far to cope with a relentless series of winter storms this year. That means DOT has used $22 million more than its $40 million winter weather budget to spray brine, sprinkle sand and salt, and scrape snow and ice on state roads from the mountains to the coast.

And this is a preliminary tally.

This sum does not include the St. Patrick’s Day unpleasantness – more ice that annoyed drivers and closed schools again last week. And in the first full week of spring, our winter worries are not entirely behind us. Forecasters said there was a chance of scattered, icy problems Tuesday from a new weather system expected to bring more rain and cold nights to much of the state.

“From a statewide perspective, this is one of the worst years we’ve had in a long, long time,” said Wally Bowman, a 27-year veteran who oversees DOT’s Division Five in Wake, Durham and five other counties. “I don’t remember when we’ve had a snowstorm that hit all 100 counties, and this year we had that. Seems like we had more of those freeze-thaw situations where you get more water down in the pavement and it freezes again.”

To cover the extra cost, DOT administrators will cut back on less-crucial maintenance work next year. That means less money for mowing grass, picking up litter, replacing old signs and other work that can safely be postponed.

Meanwhile, city and state maintenance crews are on pothole patrol.

“I expect it will be into late spring and early summer before we get all of them,” Bowman said.

When workers find a pothole they trim the edges into a rectangle, paint it with sticky liquid asphalt and then dump in a mini-load of steaming asphalt pavement, heated to 300 degrees. After a few passes with a little steamroller, the patched pavement could be good for as long as six to eight years.

“We’re not terribly behind on patching them right now,” McGee said. “But we’re going to get more potholes. And we’ll go full-force on them until we get caught up. I expect over the next couple of months, we’ll probably see the worst of it.”

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