Pothole patrol

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In a normal March, Randy Williams would see a car or truck come into Grand Wheeler Sinclair in St. Paul with pothole damage once a week or so. 


This March, it’s been a different story.


“Every day so far for the past three weeks or more,” the automobile repair shop manager said of how often he’s seen clients come in with pothole damage this year. “The streets around here are definitely worse than in the past. And it will continue for a while, I think.”


Twin Cities street repair crews are scrambling to catch up with a pothole season that started earlier and has been more severe than any in recent memory.


Late December rains, followed by a deep freeze and then early thaw in January, followed by another cycle of rain, freeze and thaw in the last month, has played havoc with area roads, said Mike Kennedy, director of transportation maintenance and repair for the Minneapolis Public Works Department.


“It’s probably not the worst I’ve ever seen, but it is extraordinary,” he said. “Moisture is the enemy.


Potholes form when moisture seeps beneath a road’s surface in liquid form and then freezes. When that happens, it expands and displaces soil and weakens asphalt, but it’s when the frozen moisture thaws again and leaves an open space below the road surface that a pothole forms.


Planning and patching


During the late winter, public works crews patch the potholes with a cold asphalt mixture that often lasts for just a few days, Kennedy said.


But St. Paul’s municipal asphalt plant opened up March 1, a few weeks early, to produce a hot asphalt mixture that lasts longer as a temporary patch and is essential for permanent repairs.


By the end of the week, St. Paul public works crews will have gone through all city streets at least once, said Shannon Tyree, St. Paul Public Works spokeswoman.


“I don’t know if caught up is the right word,” she said. “But they’ll have surveyed and identified the biggest potholes for repairs.”


St. Paul’s asphalt plant supplies many other cities, including Minneapolis, and has allowed that city to begin making permanent repairs this week, a couple weeks ahead of schedule, Kennedy said.


That involves cleaning out the pothole, coating the hole with liquid asphalt that acts as a glue, the applying, rolling and compacting the hot asphalt mixture for a long-lasting repair, he said.


The streets that see the most pothole damage are those which have a high volume of traffic, traveling at fast speeds and which include truck traffic, said Kent Barnard, communication specialist for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.


The price of potholes


But there is also a gap in funding at the state and local level for repairing and replacing pavement that has contributed to this year’s bad pothole season, he said.


“Our roads are getting older and nearing the end of their useful lives,” Barnard said. “We always manage to get more years out of them by patching the potholes, milling and overlay. But every year it gets a little worse.”


The worst stretch of state highway for potholes in the Twin Cities is probably Interstate Highway 94 between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, Barnard said.


In Minneapolis, the Hennepin Avenue/Lyndale Avenue bottleneck area above the I-94 tunnel has some of the worst potholes, Kennedy said.


Both are tops on the respective agencies’ lists for permanent repair work.


Customers coming in to Williams’ shop tell him that I-94 and River Road are the two spots that cause the most damage, he said.


Repairing that vehicle damage usually involves replacing a blown tire and repairing a bent rim and can cost between $150 and $300, Williams said.


“The worst one I’ve seen was a tire, rim and a broken strut, and that cost $800,” he said.


Reporting the potholes


Public works crews generally know where the worst potholes are, but most local governments have a phone number and/or Web site for people to report potholes that need repair.


(SeeClickFix.com is also a place to report, and has received hundreds of pothole reports from the Twin Cities this season.)


Minneapolis residents can call 311 or visit the 311 section of the city’s Web site to report potholes, Kennedy said.


St. Paul maintains a 24-hour street maintenance telephone service at (651) 292-6600 that is answered by a real person at all times, Tyree said.


MnDOT offers visitors to its www.mndot.gov Web site the option in a pull-down menu on the front page to report potholes in the metro area, Barnard said.


The public works section of Ramsey County’s Web site offers residents the option to report potholes, said Mark Rauchbauer, county maintenance general supervisor. Residents can also send an e-mail to to pothole@co.ramsey.mn.us or call (651) 266-7100, he said.


Hennepin County uses a pothole reporting form on its county Web site as the preferred method of notification.


While St. Paul promises a response within 24 hours, most others say it depends on the severity of the pothole compared with other known repair needs.


One key to getting prompt attention for pothole repairs is to direct it to the right authority, Rauchbauer said. MnDOT repairs state highways, while counties repair county roads and cities repair city streets, even though all of them can coexist side-by-side in a given city, he said.