FORT WAYNE – For crews battling potholes on city streets, spring can feel like a monster-sized game of Whac-A-Mole.
I’ve heard some guys saying they’ve filled the same pothole three times in one week, said Frank Suarez, spokesman for Fort Wayne’s Public Works department. They just seem to pop up everywhere.
But how many of this season’s potholes could have been prevented?
Each summer, crews hit the streets for crack-sealing duty, where hot, rubbery tar is sprayed into cracks and imperfections in the road, sealing them against water. Without it, water gets into the cracks and freezes during the winter, expanding with enough force to break concrete, making the crack bigger. If the water gets down below the pavement, the freeze-thaw cycle can create a void under the street, causing the asphalt to collapse.
Could more crack sealing last summer have led to fewer potholes this spring?
Officials say yes – but it’s not as simple as that.
Director of Public Works Bob Kennedy said that summer crack sealing does prevent spring potholes, but there’s no way to quantify how many were prevented.
We still believe crack sealing’s important, that’s why we do 75 miles of it a year, Kennedy said.
Randy Knach, supervisor of the Allen County Highway Department’s north maintenance facility, said county crews do about 20 miles of crack sealing a year.
It’s a very important process, Knach said. You can save the road from any major maintenance for three or four years.
But preventing potholes is a long-term issue. More important, Kennedy said, is a solid resurfacing schedule and regular maintenance, of which crack sealing is a part.
Kennedy points to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the city wasn’t doing as much street maintenance. In those years, it was common to use 2,000 tons of cold mix – the temporary patching material used in the winter – to fill potholes in the winter and spring. When it gets warm enough, asphalt plants can open and produce hot mix, which is the same asphalt used to pave the street and makes a permanent repair.
After 2000, the city doubled and tripled the amount of asphalt resurfacing it was doing each year. Miles of crack sealing quadrupled from 17 in 2000 to 69 miles in 2001.
Officials now try to do at least 75 miles of crack sealing a year. Last year, 20 miles of asphalt streets were resurfaced; this year, at least 37 miles will be done.
Now, we use 400 to 500 tons of cold mix at most, Kennedy said, and we had a lot less miles of streets then, too.
In 1999, the city had 850 miles of roads; by 2007, thanks to annexations, it had 1,200 miles.
The bigger issue is that gas tax revenues have fallen as cars have become more fuel-efficient, and the failing economy that caused people to drive less meant less money to fix the roads. City officials estimate they have a backlog of $60 million worth of street projects they need to do.
Now, thanks to an increase in the local income tax, they plan to complete the backlog of work over the next five years and put the city on a regular schedule of replacing asphalt streets every 15 years and concrete streets every 25 years.
Crack sealing definitely helps, that’s why we do it, he said. But that’s just one of the factors.
Another factor is the weather, and as everyone who survived it knows, this winter’s weather was about the worst in 40 years.
How bad was it?
Normally, crews digging to repair broken water mains report the ground is frozen about 8 to 12 inches deep. This year, the frost line was 60 inches deep.
That’s unheard of around here, Kennedy said. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen frost like that. With frost that deep and heavy rains on top of it, the streets just exploded.
That’s why officials estimate they’ll probably double the amount of cold mix used this year to about 1,000 tons.
But the weather is getting warmer, and officials have been able to open the city’s asphalt plant, which is churning out the hot mix crews use for permanent pothole repairs and for larger fixes, such as repaving after water main breaks.
Suarez said crews have been working around the clock since the asphalt plant opened. He encourages residents to continue reporting potholes to 311 so they can be filled.