Potholes: A patch or a real fix?

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As winter slowly melts into spring around here, the one smart transportation policy every Minnesota driver supports is Fit it First. As in: Please fill the gaping canyons along my daily commute before they wreck my shocks, struts and backbone.

This year road crews at every level of government are straining to mitigate the effects of the state’s most severe winter in 30 years. The epic outbreak of potholes has even inspired poetry. My favorite commemorates the one so big it “has a Starbucks.”

But if potholes seem more prevalent and cavernous than in the past, it’s not just because of the return of a “real” Minnesota winter. An underlying reason is that more and more of our motorways are aging and, like many of my Boomer generation, sorely in need of reconstructive surgery. It’s expensive to dig up and rebuild a street from the ground up, about $1 million a mile, but it needs to happen every 50 years or so before Mother Nature does the demolition herself.

Guess what? Half the nearly 140,000 miles of roadways in Minnesota are past the half-century mark, and the backlog of needed work keeps growing as resources stagnate or shrink. And the older the road, the more vulnerable it is to potholes.

“We’re paving streets by the shovelful right now,” St. Paul city engineer Jahn Maczko told the Star Tribune this month. “And that’s not effective, and it’s not efficient … Winter is not the problem. Our infrastructure is the problem.”

Yes, Fix it First is a great plan, but not with a bandaid approach. As the Michigan Department of Transportation points out in a “Reality Check,” it’s a myth that “road crews just throw some asphalt in the potholes to fix them. They need to fix them right the first time so it lasts.” Sorry, no can do. “Pothole patches are just that—a patch. A true fix will require much more.”

To head off potholes before they happen, and save public and private money in the long run, we need to get serious about maintaining our constantly depreciating assets—instead of just patching them over and over.