Potholes plague road agencies, drivers

Capital News Service

LANSING —  If you’ve driven in Michigan within the last few weeks, there’s a decent chance you’ve seen a pothole. Actually, lots of potholes.

With the rise in temperatures and the heavy rain that has drenched the state, frozen roads are warming up, snow is melting and riverbeds are overflowing onto roads and sidewalks.

This is a huge concern for motorists and county road agencies statewide as roads with potholes proliferate.

“When the roads start thawing, particularly with the amount of rain that happened, that’s the time in which the roads are most vulnerable,” said Denise Donohue, director of the County Road Association of Michigan.

“Frost under the road can be as deep as 2 feet, it can be 3 feet deep,” Donohue said. “And so, as you can imagine, the top thaws out first because the water leaks through the existing potholes first. And so the soil right under the road right now is muddy, it’s damp.”

When heavy trucks drive, they pound the concrete against the “spongy” part under the road. The soil is still frozen, so water can’t drain away and sits in the “spongy” section, she said. “It doesn’t give much support to the asphalt, so that is where the damage occurs.”

As of Feb. 23, 47 of the state’s 83 counties have activated full or partial seasonal weight restrictions to preserve designated roads with axle-loading limits and slower maximum speeds.

Zach Russell, the communications administrator for the Ottawa County Road Commission, said that over the last few days, the number of reports the agency has received has forced the road commission’s supervisors to focus solely on potholes.

Despite the amount of resources being put into road repair, Russell said it’s difficult r to compare this season to previous ones because of the uncertainty of what March will hold.

“If March has a lot more thawing and freezing, it can cause problems, too. Even if it’s not more extreme weather than we’ve had in past years,” he said, roads are getting close to the end of their usable life..

Officials in some counties, however, are bracing for this season to be worse than normal.

“This is due to the extreme temperature swings from December to now and the high levels of moisture,” said Emily Kizer, the communications coordinator for the Washtenaw County Road Commission. “The good news: We are slowly making progress in resurfacing roads that have been underinvested in for years.”

During weeks when road problems are at a high, Kizer said Washtenaw County deploys six to eight pothole crews to tend to its roads.

“These crews are focused on different sections of paved roads, some are working on the highways and others on more rural paved roads,” she said. “They load their trucks up with cold patch, the temporary asphalt product that can be applied cold.”

According to Cindy Dingell, the public information manager for the Road Commission for Oakland County, the rapid fluctuation in temperatures have made this season unusual.

“The rapid change from freeze to thaw combined with torrential rain over the past several days has played havoc on the roads,” she said. “We are also dealing with decades of underfunding roads in Michigan which has really hampered the true cure to potholes which is reconstructing some of the worst roads.”

Dingell said that the county’s last count of pothole reports was just over 900 so far this year,  slightly higher than last year.

The Lapeer County Road Commission’s board secretary, Linette Weston, said the state’s lack of funding for transportation infrastructure is a challenge all counties face in combating potholes and other maintenance problems.

“It is a fact that we spend less per mile on road repairs than neighboring states,” she said. “Unfortunately, the funding has lacked for so long that the repairs that need to be made now are exorbitant.”

Weston advises motorists to stay alert.  

“Expect delays and defects as you make your commute. Also be aware that road workers will also be out working to fill the holes and they need space to do their job safely,” she said.