‘Tis the season — for potholes

By Nick Grabbe

So you’re driving down Leverett Road, approaching Cushman, when – BUMPITY-BUMPITY-BUMP – you hit the brakes to avoid putting your car’s suspension at risk.

Or you’re tooling along College Street and – KA-CHUNG! – one of your tires descends into a big hole in the pavement.

It’s pothole season. There’s been a “bumper crop” this year, says Public Works Superintendent Guilford Mooring. “Everything just exploded in mid-February.”

As annoying as potholes are for drivers, they’re just as irksome for the DPW. Crews often fill potholes only to see them reemerge after a rain, and DPW staffers field angry calls from drivers who want immediate action.

Here’s a list of the Top Ten Things To Know About Potholes, according to Mooring.

  1. They’re a problem all over the state. By one estimate, Massachusetts ranks fourth in the U.S. in pothole complaints per mile of road. Potholes occur when ice melts, causing the pavement to contract, which leads to gaps that trap water. The cycle of freezing and thawing weakens the road surface.
  2. Road salt makes the problem worse. It keeps water from freezing and makes it easier to get into cracks. It isn’t good for trees, water supplies or car bodies, either. “People expect to have black pavement when the snow stops,” Mooring says. “Maybe we need to wait 12 hours and let the pavement melt on its own.”
  3. You can report potholes. Go to the “See, Click, Fix” feature on amherstma.gov or call Public Works at 259-3050. You can talk to a staffer, and if you’re particularly insistent, she can refer you to Mooring. The DPW sends out at least two crews a day to fill potholes, but it’s strenuous work, and after a while they have to return to headquarters for more asphalt.
  4. There’s a funding squeeze. The pothole budget is about half what it used to be, and the price of asphalt and gasoline has risen. Asphalt was $45 a ton when Mooring became DPW superintendent 20 years ago, and now it’s $95. Sometimes the DPW has to take money from other budgets to fill the gap.
  5. You can file a claim for damages. Say you blow a tire driving over a pothole. You can seek compensation from the Town’s insurance provider. But this typically works only when someone has reported the pothole and it hasn’t been fixed in a reasonable time. There have been about 10 such claims so far this year.
  6. It’s another impact of climate change. Snow doesn’t cause potholes; this year there’s been half the usual amount. It’s the increased freezing and thawing that causes problems. This week, with very cold nights followed by 60-degree temperatures and rain today, the weather has been perfect for pothole formation.
  7. The solution is to repave the roads. The DPW is spending about $2 million this year to repave and reconstruct roads. This amount has been increasing, but there’s still a backlog of roadwork that Mooring estimates will cost about $20 million. Amherst has been underfunding roadwork for many years.
  8. Several roads are due for fixing. Bids have gone out for work on the east side of Bay Road, Leverett Road, Meadow Street, Russellville Road, a section of Pulpit Hill Road, Harris Mountain Road, and part of Kellogg Avenue. The bids from private companies will determine how much actually gets done this year.
  9. Electric cars get a free ride. A lot of the money to repair roads comes from the gasoline tax, which drivers of electric cars don’t pay. Mooring calls them “freeloaders.” This is a national problem and the gas tax and road repair formulas need to change, he says.
  10. They bring costs, and risks. Driving over a pothole can cause you to wreck a tire and put stress on your suspension. And who hasn’t seen a driver swerve to avoid a pothole, creating a hazard for all vehicles in the vicinity.

Mooring had some other interesting news:

Guilford Mooring, Amherst’s DPW superintendent
  • Town officials are close to a deal on a site for a new $20 million DPW facility. It will involve paying a lot of money to a private landowner after neighbors objected to a site offered for free by Amherst College.
  • There’s been a lot of coughing and sneezing in the current building, which was built in 1919. There are leaks in the roof and one wall is covered with mold. “I feel like I’m a sinking ship,” Mooring said.
  • The town manager is expected to make a decision next week about whether to take down a silver maple tree on the corner of Sunset Avenue and Fearing Street. It’s in the way of a housing development but some neighbors want it to stay.
  • The state roadwork on Northampton Road will involve putting in a new water line that will improve the quality of water in the Dana Street/Blue Hills Road area, which can get stagnant and discolored in the summer.
  • With the sole trash hauler raising its pickup rates, about 50 additional households have canceled service and bought stickers to gain access to the transfer station/recycling center. About 1,300 people now buy these stickers.

6 thoughts on “‘Tis the season — for potholes”

  1. These aren’t technically potholes (I think), but I’m curious about the degradation of the brick crosswalks by Amherst College on Rte 116 south of Rte 9. Those have clearly not aged well, and it is jarring to drive over them. Are these the college’s responsibility to fix, or the town’s?

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  2. The biggest problem I see is the way potholes are filled with patch over patch over patch over patch. Try biking across some of those patches! I’ve seen elsewhere (Nova Scotia with presumably some of the same weather issues as we have) that they cut out an area in a square or rectangle, then fill the area level to the rest of the road. This is a whole different way to fill holes. I acknowledge that it must be more expensive in the short term, but to my naive eye, it looked like it worked. When I approached the DPW, I was told that there are different ways to fill potholes. Yup. I agree with that.

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  3. Please, electric cars do not get a free ride. The gas tax is not deposited directly in the account for road repairs, and we all pay all kinds of taxes.

    There are 20 line items on my residential electric bill, and one of them is a Vegetation Management Charge that pays to remove some of those pesky trees that might fall in the roadway and take down power lines with them.

    Even at $4.00 a gallon, gasoline is about half the cost of electricity, per unit of energy. The big difference is that an electric car wastes a whole lot less of that energy. But there ain’t no free!

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  4. I wonder about point #1, “They’re a problem all over the state.” I’m sure that’s true, but not universally so. You mention the Cushman approach from Leverett. Nick, why is it that an instantaneous, notable change in road quality is evident on crossing the town line into Amherst from just about every direction? And has been for a long time, year round. My impression at least is that our abutting neighbors take a more conscientious approach to remediation and we haven’t found the will to prioritize (or the funds, as you document).
    Not only do Amherst drivers put up with miles and miles of unrepaired potholes, but deteriorating surface, cracks, ruptures, and heaves. Reparations are in order.
    Tom Porter

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  5. We are often told that snowplows do not cause potholes. I fully understand that it is the freeze-thaw cycle, inadequate road maintenance, heavy vehicle traffic, and other factors. A I am also aware that, in and of themselves, snowplows do not cause potholes. I also know from direct observation that snowplows make the problem much worse. I can hear the loud BOOM at night as the plow blade rips up pavement, and I can see chunks of asphalt near freshly-excavated potholes in the street. Even the website pothole.info, which says that it is a “misconception” that plows cause potholes, says:
    “As for snowplows, the upward heave of pavement can cause already weakened areas to get caught on snowplow blades. Most municipalities adjust the blade height to account for this, but inexperienced snow removal personnel might make errors at setting the blade too low.”
    Exactly. inexperienced and/or exhausted snowplow drivers can make a preexisting pothole problem much worse. In Japan’s Hokkaido, a much snowier place than Amherst, plows are equipped with a sensor that detects uplifted pavement and automatically lifts the blade enough to prevent the creation of a pothole. Whatever that technology costs, it’s got to be cheaper than having to fix all the potholes and settle claims for pothole- related damage. Not to mention all the trouble and expense associated with fixing wrecked tires, suspension systems and all the rest.

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