Extreme cold leaves parting gift: potholes

The cold in the Chicago area and Midwest may have receded but the potholes have just begun:

Streets already showing signs of deterioration are vulnerable to potholes, said Adam Boeche, Mundelein’s director of public works and engineering.

“Once the snow and ice melt, the water begins to infiltrate into the base of the pavement. Then it freezes again, causing the base to heave and expand the roadway surface,” Boeche explained. “If there are already cracks in the surface, they begin to separate more, thereby losing the integrity of the pavement and forming potholes.”

Drivers and residents are encouraged to report potholes to local public works departments. People should drive slowly and cautiously when navigating streets with potholes, said Lincolnshire Public Works Director Bradford H. Woodbury…

Cepeda’s advice on avoiding potholes is simple: Keep your eyes on the road.

So if the driver in front of you is swerving, it may be because they are distracted by their cell phone and it may be because they are trying to avoid a pothole.

More broadly, I’m a little surprised that I have not heard more over the years about construction techniques or research into avoiding potholes in roadways. If we can make permeable roads and roads that can absorb pollution, why not one that is more resistant to potholes or even roads that could be self-healing? The short answer likely is that asphalt roads are relatively cheap to build and repair. At the same time, potholes can be costly and take a toll on many vehicles.

Chicago’s road construction in the long term

Curbed Chicago provides an update on the city’s work to resurface streets:

[T]he city rolls out plans to resurface 135 miles of streets, according to an announcement from the mayor’s office.

The work is expected to begin mid-April when the asphalt plants open for the 2018 construction season. The Chicago Department of Transportation and the Department of Water Management are leading the project and plan to resurface at least 275 miles by the end of the year.

Since 2011, more than 1,850 miles of streets and alleyways have been resurfaced (that’s out of the city’s 4,600 miles of roadways).

If these numbers are roughly consistent on a yearly basis, it would take 17 years to resurface everything. On the city’s page for Streets, Alleys, and Sidewalks, there is no description of how long an overall cycle might take. But, there might be some mitigating factors affecting which roadways are addressed: particularly bad pothole seasons that cause damage and draw attention and roads that are used much more than others.

And while residents may not be fond of all of this construction, roadways are a constant work in progress. Given the American emphasis on driving, they get a lot of use for commuting, trips within the community, and delivering goods and services. Poor roads do not look good for the local government and could impede activity. Residents can get unhappy pretty quickly if they feel their tax dollars are not leading to good roadways. Yet, if people truly do not want construction, they should really consider driving less and helping to create places with less driving so that the roads last longer.

Song invoking filling potholes with cement (which the gov’t is not doing)

Potholes are problems in many places but it isn’t often that the issue makes it into a popular song. Here is part of the bridge for Twenty One Pilots’ “Tear In My Heart”:

You fell asleep in my car I drove the whole time
But that’s okay I’ll just avoid the holes so you sleep fine
I’m driving here I sit
Cursing my government
For not using my taxes to fill holes with more cement

Potholes are costly to the average driver but who knew that they can be detrimental to romantic relationships? Yet another reason for spending more upfront on infrastructure to keep the later potholes at bay. Plus, the artist is convinced that the government is misallocating his tax monies. Seems to be a popular American sentiment these days.

These failed romance/anti-government themes may just be popular together: at the time of writing, the song was #67 on iTunes and is #2 on the alternative radio charts. Or, maybe the reference to filling potholes with cement is the real secret…

Road damage costs $515 per car per year

Urban roads that aren’t in peak condition cost individual drivers an average of $515 a year:

The numbers from TRIP show that 28 percent of the nation’s major roadways — interstates, freeways, and major arterial roadways in urban areas — are in “poor” condition. This means they have so many major ruts, cracks and potholes that they can’t simply be resurfaced — they need to be completely rebuilt.

Those cracks and potholes put a lot of extra wear and tear on your car. They wear your tires away faster, and they decrease your gas mileage too. All of these factors go into that calculation of $515 in extra annual cost, above and beyond what you’d pay to maintain your car if the roads were in good conditions…

The worst roads in America are in Washington D.C., where 92 percent of our major roadways are rated as “poor.” Conversely, zero percent of D.C.’s roads received a “good” rating in the Federal Highway Administration data analyzed by TRIP.  There is almost literally not a single good road in D.C.

But D.C. is a special case, since it is not a state and doesn’t have vast stretches of highway like most places in the U.S. do. So among the real states, the worst roads are in California where 51 percent of the highways are rated poor. Rhode Island, New Jersey and Michigan all have “poor” ratings of 40 percent or more. Dang.

The ending of this analysis is that we need to spend more on infrastructure. It may cost a lot to pay upfront costs to completely rebuild major roads (plus the time lost to congestion) but it may just pay off down the road with reduced costs for drivers. Such is the nature of infrastructure: well-spent money early on can save money and time later on. And, of course, there are better and worse ways to fight potholes.

But, there may be a second moral at the end of this story. Cars are expensive. You drive them off the lot and they depreciate. Gas prices are up and states are raising gas taxes. Insurance isn’t cheap and it is required. Maintenance can be pricey. New features – such as automation or backup cameras or alternatives to gas power – may just cost more. And to top it all off, many American settings practically require a car. (Indeed, this is a contributor to the spatial mismatch for jobs.) The whole system devoted to driving from cars to roads to garages requires a lot of resources that might have been spent elsewhere.

Where are the ubiquitous Chicago pothole stories?

As we emerge from winter, I thought today that I haven’t seen many pothole stories in the Chicago media. These are typically a staple of news coverage – see examples here and here. Here are some reasons why there may not have been so many stories this year:

1. The communities in the Chicago region did such a fine job filling potholes in recent years that the problem wasn’t so bad this year. This could be true; there are ways to address potholes that solve the problems for the longer term. Yet, the problems were acute in recent years and it sounded like municipalities were trying to fix things as quickly as possible plus there were added costs with salt supplies.

2. Other concerns have dominated the news. Perhaps it was the cold weather and snow cover. Perhaps the transportation news was dominated by future construction on areas like the Jane Byrne Interchange, I-90, and the proposed Illiana Expressway.

3. The weather has been so cold that potholes haven’t really formed yet since the roads were not thawing and freezing. Perhaps the potholes will really start emerging this week.

4. Perhaps I missed all the pothole stories?

Man fills Chicago potholes with mosaic art

Chicago has had plenty of potholes in recent months and one man has taken to filling a few potholes with art:

The perfect pothole might not exist for many people — but for mosaic artist Jim Bachor, it’s one with a nice oval shape. Bachor began filling those potholes a little more than a year ago, after one in front of his house became a hassle.

Bachor doesn’t just fill them with cement, though. He’s turned pothole-filling into a public art project — one with a sense of humor. He fills them with mosaics.

“I just think it’s fun to add that little bit of spark into (an) issue that people moan about,” says the Chicago resident, whose work also hangs in galleries. He was first drawn to the ancient art form because of its ability to last.

With orange cones and vests displaying his last name, Bachor and his helpers look official enough to shut down a street section to work on filling a pothole.

Bachor uses the Chicago city flag design in his pothole art. Some versions hold phone numbers to local auto repair shops, while others simply read “POTHOLE.” His most recent installment north of downtown Chicago — “(hash)21914” — pokes fun at the huge number of potholes that exist in the city.

Public art that also helps the city fulfill one of its basic duties. How long until he is shut down for not filling potholes to standards or because it leaves the city liable?

It would be interesting to test the durability of mosaics in potholes. Given their construction with numerous small pieces, wouldn’t they be particularly susceptible to pressure, water, and freezing? I suspect there are much better ways to address potholes but they may not look as good or have any moxie.

Financially troubled Chicago has to pay out more to reimburse drivers for pothole damage

Chicago doesn’t have much money these days but it will have even less after reimbursing drivers for potholes:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has ordered the Chicago Department of Transportation to assign all 30 of its pothole crews to main streets on Mondays and Fridays to address scores of potholes in blitzkrieg fashion using a grid system.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that the cash-strapped city has been hit with a blizzard of damage to vehicle claims thanks to a relentless barrage of snow, cold and wild temperature swings that has turned city streets into the surface of the moon.

Since the New Year’s Eve storm that buried Chicago in 23 inches of snow before a record-setting cold snap, CDOT crews have filled roughly 240,000 potholes…

At last week’s City Council meeting alone, there were 543 pothole claims introduced, nearly double the 280 claims introduced last month. During the March City Council meeting last year, there were just 61 pothole claims introduced.

Between paying more to patch potholes plus pay out claims, the cold and snowing weather is costing Chicago more money. It’s too bad this story doesn’t have any monetary figures about the pothole claims. Plus, how much is budgeted each year to pay out these claims and what happens if there is an outlier year (like this year)? Mayor Emanuel is quoted in this story saying this is why the city is trying to pave more streets during warmer months – indeed, constructing streets in certain ways in the first place and maintaining them adequately will cut down on pothole problems down the road. In this case, paying more upfront for the infrastructure of good roads in Chicago could save the city money later.

File Chicago pothole claims here.

Potholes can be avoided by spending more on road upkeep

Communities can limit the number of potholes they experience each winter if they spent more money upfront on maintaining roads:

The answer doesn’t lie in a revolutionary new cement or asphalt mix — yet, experts say. Instead, it comes down to a few simple things: quality materials, experienced builders, plus regular road maintenance and reconstruction.

“A lot of things cause potholes, but at the core they’re caused because we don’t do enough road maintenance. We push our roads too far and too hard,” said engineer Don Hillebrand, head of Argonne National Laboratory’s Transportation Research Center…

Avoiding potholes starts with getting it right the first time, said Mohsen Issa, a University of Illinois at Chicago structural and materials engineering professor…

Hillebrand, a former auto executive with Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz, spent time in Germany, where “they view roads as a serious thing and spend much more on road maintenance than we do and expect them to last longer,” he said. Deeper foundations and thicker concrete help preserve German roads, he noted.

Roads seem to be the sort of thing many people don’t pay attention to until things start going wrong. However, as this article notes, roads have to be built well and continually maintained. This requires a good deal of resources that people may not want to spend until something goes wrong. Yet, when things do go wrong, fixes are not necessarily quick or easy. This provides a classic lesson in infrastructure: spending money upfront pays off down the road.

A question: just how many pothole stories can the media run this winter?

Roads still susceptible to potholes

A Google News search for the last week brings up hundreds of news stories about potholes. It is a familiar cycle: water gets on the roads, freezing temperatures cause the water to expand, potholes emerge on lots of roads. See diagrams and video about pothole formation here.

Is there any way to build roads that don’t have these problems? Here is one answer:

Which holds up better — concrete or asphalt? “Asphalt can sometimes be a more porous material than concrete depending on the depth of the asphalt surface. As a result, it can be more prone to a freeze-thaw cycle,” Shuftan said.

However, DuPage County Transportation Committee Chairman Don Puchalski said it’s all about maintenance. “The condition of the pavement keeps moisture from penetrating the riding surface,” Puchalski said.

Can’t we build pothole-proof roads? Engineering professor Imad Al-Qadi thinks we can do better. “Through better engineering of the materials and pavement systems, roads can withstand extreme temperatures and cycles of freezing and thawing,” Al-Qadi wrote in an email.

For asphalt, using proper binder and aggregate materials that aren’t susceptible to moisture, freezing or thawing can minimize damage.

For concrete, using the right chemical mixtures can control freezing and thawing. Proper spacing and using more steel in the concrete slabs can also control warping, Al-Qadi said.

This makes it sound like the best pothole solution might be more monitoring and money when roads are originally built. Who is going for pay for that? Surrey, England has gone with “pothole-proof” roads that have a 10 year guarantee:

But in an attempt to find a more permanent solution, the council has begun a five-year, £100 million plan to re-lay the county’s worst roads with new materials which carry a decade-long “no pothole” guarantee…

At the moment the council says it is carrying out a pothole repair every five minutes but the new roads, which have more flexible watertight surfaces, should overcome the problem…

About 300 miles of road will be repaired and the 10-year warranty means any potholes would be repaired by contractors Aggregate Industries and Marshalls.

So there might still be potholes but at least the road-builder will take care of it.

If the roads always have this problem, you could instead with a car that stands up better to potholes:

Honda cars are the most resilient to pothole damage, saving drivers hundreds of pounds in repairs each year, according to research by Potholes.co.uk.

The road maintenance campaign website analysed about 150,000 policies issued by Warranty Direct over three years to reveal the cars most and least susceptible to damage caused by the nation’s biggest bugbear – potholes…

After Honda, the most “pothole-proof” manufacturers are Toyota and Hyundai, with less than two per cent of their cars suffering axle and suspension damage attributable to potholes and other road defects.

Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz and Land Rover models are the most likely to suffer, with more than 10 per cent suffering damage each year.

Or you can just pay for some pothole-resistant tires.

All together, this is an annoying reminder that maintaining roads can be quite difficult. If they all have problems, it is very difficult to fix them quickly.