Rough ride: Onset of pothole season makes travel a challenge

The city has received several complaints about potholes along main traffic collectors, City Administrator Todd Feland said. There are problem areas on various streets, including Washington and Cherry streets, DeMers and University avenues and Belmont Road.

Auto repair shops are noticing an uptick in pothole-related service. Kevin Reitmeier, owner of Braaten’s Quality Auto Service, said his business has helped several customers this week with flat tires and bent rims, while the employees at Rydell Cars have noticed more problems with wheel alignment, tires and suspension, Rydell service director Andrew Neumann said.

“Some of them out there seem large enough to swallow up half a vehicle,” Reitmeier said of the potholes.

The goal of a half-percent sales tax approved in November is to provide a long-term solution of reconstruction and maintenance, Feland said. The city is set to bid out $2 million in rehabilitation projects next month that will fix roads like Belmont, and more projects funded by the sales tax are expected as the city collects funds.

The city will pay for the projects as money is spent with cash on hand and then pay itself back as funds from the sales tax come in, Feland said.

But until the city sees warmer, drier weather, it needs to wait to patch up potholes with hot mix, which sticks in the holes for months, City Engineer Allen Grasser said.

“The thing is you have to get it to stick, and you can’t get it to stick when you have water and ice in the bottom of the hole,” he said.

What causes a pothole?

Potholes form when water from thawed ice or snow makes its way below the pavement through cracks, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation. Freezing causes the water to expand then contract when thawing occurs.

But that leaves a space under the raised pavement. When vehicles travel over the weakened and raised pavement, it breaks into a pothole.

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Temperatures have been warm in recent days, causing water to melt during the day then freeze at night. The sun also tends to heat up the pavement to a higher temperature than the air in February and March, said Jim Kaiser, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks. That can trigger the thaw-freeze cycle, he said.

The number of potholes appears to be similar to last year, said John Bernstrom, communications specialist for the city, but they are appearing in different parts of town. Potholes also appear to be popping up earlier, Feland said.

“It seems that the potholes are a little deeper than what we are used to seeing,” he said. “That is causing more traveling challenges, just because of the depth and trying to avoid them.”

The city is aware of the potholes and is trying to patch up the more severe ones, Grasser said. But it isn’t warm or dry enough to use the hot mix, so city workers must use a cold mix that only lasts two days to a week, he said.

On top of that, the city has a lot of deficiencies in the city’s road system that have built up over the years, Grasser said. It will take a few years to catch up, he said.

“I think we need to get back to reconstruction and get back to concrete,” Feland said, adding the city wants to be in a position to prevent patching every year.

Damage done

The most common types of damage to a vehicle from potholes are punctured tires, bent or broken suspension and unbalanced wheel alignment, Reitmeier and Neumann said. Neumann said he is noticing more pothole-related calls for service earlier than normal—those types of calls typically come later in March.

“If you hear noise after hitting a pothole, that is going to signify something is bent or broken,” Neumann said, adding another sign is a vehicle drifting to one side of the road.

About 30 million drivers in the U.S. reported pothole damage that required repair in 2016, the latest numbers from AAA. The bills ranged from below $250 to more than $1,000, the automobile organization said.

Reitmeier and Neumann both said drivers should check out vehicles they suspect have damage from potholes before they get worse.

“Keep an eye out because they can cost you a lot of money,” Reitmeier said.